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"Mad Men": "The Fog"/"The Arrangements"

By admin Published: September 13, 2009

I neglected to post on last week's "Mad Men." So, after the jump, some remarks on both last week's and tonight's telecasts.

Update: Because I focused only on some broad points that were on my mind immediately after the episode, you may also want to take a look at Alan Sepinwall's detailed analysis, which goes into some of the other issues and storylines in "The Fog."

The action has certainly picked up, hasn't it? Gene dying. Betty giving birth. Peggy and Pete both potentially in play, or at least giving it serious thought after the Mephistophelean wooing by Duck -- and each getting reminded that they're not all that valuable to Sterling Cooper: Peggy can't even get equal pay, and Pete's right move/wrong client mishap gets him lectured and then overlooked. (As the brass pondered going after the African-American market but dismissed Pete, I thought of "Fargo" and poor old William H. Macy getting aced out of a deal he conceived because he just wasn't tied strongly enough to the real deal-makers.) Out in the real world, Medgar Evers has been killed (and now sits in heaven with Betty's parents), the "Negro" market really is important, and there are things people are going to have to talk about. When Pete read off the list of markets where Admiral was selling, he concluded that they had African-American population; I was thinking that a lot of them would also host race riots later in the decade.

But here's where "Mad Men" had a logistical problem: Race is becoming something that has to be talked about, but the show has no character who provides an intimate view of the issue. Even Carla, Gene's caretaker, has been dispatched at the end of the episode (and that's a real loss). So the issue of race becomes a companion to the issue of women's roles, which the show has been addressing in considerable detail, and where Peggy is the great point of entry. In Duck's declaration that "this is your time," Peggy is hearing something specific; but for viewers, this is the call that the role of women is indeed changing, and Peggy is just one example of that change.

Of course, if it is the time for Peggy, and it is the time for African-Americans, then the show is making ever more clearly that it is not the time for Don and Roger and Bert, and it may be Pete's time only because he has been smart enough to embrace the changes in the culture in a far more significant way than Duck's turtleneck. This goes back to the idea of the Brits taking over Sterling Cooper as a reflection of the decline of the British Empire; the Brits have no idea how to manage their American cousins, any more than the Empire will be able to manage its far-flung holdings as people want independence and ideas not wrapped in ancient thinking.

As Madame Merle says in Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady": "I belong to the old, old world. But it's not of that I want to talk; I want to talk about the new. You must tell me more about America." Of course, she calls America "that splendid, dreadful, funny country," but so in many ways does "Mad Men."

But, for all that, I was disappointed by parts of "The Fog" tonight. "The Arrangements" a week ago was another solid outing. "The Fog" wobbled. The actress playing Sally's teacher was not good; in the classroom scene, there was a horrible artificiality to her performance. I can accept some of that artificiality when she labors for the right gesture -- as when she clumsily consoled Betty -- but she was also off when more was expected of her, and much better in the telephone scene. Expectant father Dennis didn't seem badly performed, but clumsily written. The lines sounded as if they should have been read instead of heard, so awkward was the phrasing.

"Mad Men" has a great gift with words, and it has splendid writing for its main characters -- something like the Peggy-sister-mother confrontation a week ago rings so sharply, and Peggy's I-want-what-you-have discussion with Don worked in the lines and in the performance. But there were off bits in tonight's show which made me think that they should be careful about venturing too far outside their most familiar characters. That's it, in fact; I don't think those two other characters were as well defined as most people on the show, and that lack of definition meant they were given lines to fit a situation rather than a person.

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