Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Wheel" (season 1, episode 13)

Mad Men - "The Wheel" (season 1, episode 13)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 18, 2007/written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith; directed by Matthew Weiner): As the first season ends, Mad Men hones in on the four main characters of the series so far. The pace is more relaxed this time, and (with one major exception) the stakes are not so high as in the previous episode but we still get a revealing snapshot of each individual. Don triumphs in the office but fails at home. He nails a meeting with Kodak to promote their new slide projector with a heart-stirring pitch, a re-name (the "carousel" rather than the "wheel"), and the personal example of his own family photos. Indeed, the nostalgic kick is so strong that he races home for Thanksgiving and imagines a warm, loving family embrace in which he surprises his wife and children just before they leave for the in-laws', informing them that he's changed his mind and wants to come with them. Instead, Don arrives at a chilly, dark, empty house. This leaves the suddenly nest-seeking breadwinner little to do but perch on a step and contemplate the gap between fantasy and reality.

Betty contemplates this gap as well, after Francine Hanson (Anne Dudek) reveals that her own husband may be cheating on her. Following her friend's lead, Betty secretly checks the family phone bill for any strange numbers and when she dials one in the middle of the night, Dr. Wayne picks up. While there may not necessarily be an issue of infidelity (little does Betty know), there is definitely an issue of trust here. With this discovery comes an opportunity. On her next visit to the therapist, the contemplative housewife casually mentions that her husband is cheating on her as if it's something she sadly and wisely lives with. The melancholy effect is underscored by the realization that this is the closest Betty can come to speaking with Don about their troubled relationship (or asking him outright if he's faithful), via the proxy of a spy - a poignant and coy game of "telephone." And the scene is well-prepared by what comes before: Betty's earnest encounter through a car window, in the doctor's parking lot, with little Glen Bishop (who tells her he's forbidden to see her). It's a sunny but wintry day in the small Westchester town (I was wrong about the Draper home being on Long Island), offering a rare glimpse of "the suburbs" as an actual community, not just a restful repository for weary city men and claustrophobic trap for their lonely wives. This corresponds to the halting, gradual growth Betty has experienced as a character this season. She is becoming more than just "Mrs. Draper," which offers hope for her and spells trouble for Don.

Of the four characters, Pete may have the least screentime and certainly has the least important storyline. Sure, it's potentially important: his wife's dad embarrassingly nudges him to have a child while offering a facial cream account to make his son-in-law look good in the workplace. But Pete is still fuming from Don's triumphant rebuff of him in "Nixon vs. Kennedy" - Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), a disgraced but brilliant advertising veteran who crashed and burned in London and is trying to make a comeback, is in charge of accounts instead of him. Pete's primary role is to serve as a foil for Peggy, though they rarely cross paths. As Pete continuously fails to impress Don, Peggy is promoted to junior copywriter and moved to a shared office (although the catty-as-ever Joan warns her to remember her roots). And while Pete fails to get his wife pregnant, he is a new father...of Peggy's child. Feeling ill despite her good fortune, a recently heavy Peggy visits the doctor and receives news she never expected: she's not only pregnant, she's very pregnant and is about to have a child. If Don, Betty, and Pete are forced to confront absences in their own family lives, Betty faces the opposite problem: a new family that's all too present.

My Response:
At first the episode seemed a bit disjointed to me, almost like...well, like a slide show. Scenes come and go in a fashion that doesn't feel as fluid as other episodes; is Weiner, directing for the first time since his mid-nineties low-budget feature debut, responsible for this fragmentation? Each scene shines on its own as an incisive sketch, digging into character and milieu in compelling fashion, without feeling like it quite belongs to a cohesive whole. Whether or not this is an intentional, subtle aesthetic strategy or a case of a filmmaker finding his sea legs (or possibly just my own viewing experience intruding onto the art itself), by the end of "The Wheel" the parts are coalescing and a strong conclusion emerges from these different pieces. The season finale is one of my favorite episodes so far, and I particularly like the way it contrasts with "Nixon vs. Kennedy," a more flamboyant storyline (aside from Peggy's surprise twist in the closing moments). As expected, this is a quieter, more reflective conclusion following an effectively flashy climax, but in some ways it cuts even deeper - especially in its poignant exploration of Betty Draper's dawning realization that the problem in her marriage might not be her. If "Nixon vs. Kennedy" is about the party and the immediate hangover, "The Wheel" is about the lingering consequences (especially for Harry, who is now sleeping at the office between desperate calls to his estranged wife; he even runs weeping from Don's moving slide show spiel). If the the last episode exists in the intensity of a crisis, this one unfolds carefully in the traumatic aftershock.

I said I didn't have any thoughts on Don's encounter with Peggy in the previous episode, but that wasn't quite right. I did have one suspicion, while watching, which I later dismissed because it didn't seem borne out by Don's subsequent confrontation with Pete. I thought that maybe Peggy was pregnant (the character had been gaining weight episode by episode), and Don, suspecting but not knowing, would bluff and blackmail Pete in an equally brutal fashion. It turns out I was right in the first case if not in the second (unless Don felt this knowledge pointed to a general truth about Pete more important than its utility as a threat, even to the point of not letting the audience in on the secret). Anyway, Mad Men waits to reveal Peggy's condition - to herself as well as to us - until it's most relevant for her rather than Don, Pete, or any of the men of the office. So we don't experience the pregnancy through the eyes of her shrewd, manipulative boss or her panicked, pathetic lover but through poor Peggy herself. The talented woman who has just broken out of the Sterling Cooper secretarial pool ghetto, the lonely employee discovering a nascent camaraderie and capability in an unexpected area, the character who has spent all season coming in to her own as an independent actor is now bound by what is, in addition to all of its other qualities, the oldest trap in the history of patriarchy: motherhood.

Even suspecting that Peggy might be expecting, I didn't for a moment expect the series to take it in this direction. There is no abortion, no slow unveiling of the condition and its implications leading up to a decision, nothing except instant revelation at a dramatic moment and immediate delivery (in several senses of the word). Peggy now has a child; we enter into season two with a dilemma whose implications will likely continue to play out for the rest of the series. Will she give the baby up for adoption? Attempt to raise the child as a single mother? Try to find a father figure? How will she balance parenting and working especially without the stay-at-home partner others in the office can take for granted? Will she necessarily have to conceal this fact from Sterling Cooper to hold onto her already precarious position? Or after a dramatic season finale, will Mad Men do what episodic shows (no matter how serialized) often do, immediately cooling the temperature and shrugging off a cliffhanger in order to move along? In the next episode, will her single motherhood simply be a fact taken for granted at the agency, something gossiped about (with speculation about the unknown father) but not really affecting her future prospects? I kind of doubt that, given both the context of the time and the extent to which the series likes to exploit that context for dramatic purposes, but a lot can happen between seasons and I can think of many other shows where what seemed like a massive turning point ended up dissipating as the writers focused instead on sustaining a perpetual narrative.

This question holds for Don too. I'll have to be more tentative here; from occasional glimpses of later episodes, I know a bit more about what's in store for him (in the near future anyway) than I know about Peggy's fate, so I won't comment on how he might fare going forward. Right now, though, it's fair to say just from the evidence onscreen that the prospects are troublesome. There are obviously major problems in this marriage, and I'm curious to see if Mad Men will kick that ball further down the road or makes it an immediate theme right of the gate in the season two premiere. A lot depends on when exactly the next episode takes place. I don't think it's giving much away to say that the series spans a decade in seven seasons, so at certain points there's likely to be time-skips. I suspect we may be jumping as many as three years ahead based on a few observations. On one hand, having scrupulously sketched out the first year of the sixties, rooted in the fifties zeitgeist but with a whiff of change in the air, I'm not sure how much Mad Men can mine from the remainder of the early sixties. While those years were eventful in a variety of ways - particularly considering the energy of the Kennedy administration and the cultural tidal force of the civil rights movement - season two could skip over 1961 and 1962 and still give that era an in-depth treatment in 1963. It will need to save a slower narrative pace for a time with the cultural pace of change was much faster; so much turmoil and transformation occurred between 1965 to 1970 that temporal resources should be reserved for that period.

On the other hand, there are two massive questions that Mad Men has left us with, and I'm not sure it wants to give them a dramatic gloss. Can Don Draper save his marriage - and does he (or Betty) really want to, deep down? This is very rich dramatic territory for a series to explore and considering Betty is beginning to suspect Don's infidelity, I'm not convinced that their crisis can wait three years to unfold (or, even more to the point, be skipped over entirely). However, I could theoretically buy that delay. The other question is, of course, how will Peggy handle being a new mother, especially with her recent promotion? The hardest part of this process will be the first few days, weeks, and months, in which shock, dependency, and work demands will be at their most intense. This is definitely not material Mad Men should want to skip...unless the baby is about to be given up for adoption, which is really the only way the series can afford to flash forward. There is one more reason I suspect the series will skip to 1963 or (if it wants to take advantage of the Cuban Missile Crisis) maybe late 1962. Mad Men likes to use contemporaneous needle-drops but season one closes (brilliantly) with Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" which captures the moment in on-the-nose dramatic fashion while evoking more subtle historical connotations (the sixties, having been teased throughout the season, are now truly initiated). This track was not released until The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, a fact which the filmmakers are surely aware of - and in spirit it definitely belongs to a subtly different zeitgeist than the romantic domestic bliss indicated by Don's fantasy. The times they are a'changin' - and when I begin my second season viewing diary, we'll find out just how much they've changed.

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