Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Color Blue" (season 3, episode 10)

Mad Men - "The Color Blue" (season 3, episode 10)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of season three. 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, 2009/written by Kater Gordon, Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Paul's frustration with Peggy builds as she swoops in to tweak every idea he has, giving it the polish that makes it seem like her brainchild instead of his. He considers Peggy Don's favorite - much to her surprise - and is determined to out-think her on a Western Union campaign. Unfortunately, he forgets his brilliant concept after a night's sleep and a hangover, mordantly sharing a Chinese saying with Peggy: "The faintest ink is better than the best memory." Even this slight exchange reproduces the familiar phenomenon, as an incredulous Paul can only watch - Peggy converts Paul's offhand expression into a brilliant hook for the "telephone vs. telegram" campaign. Of course, this phone vs. written document dynamic plays out in other ways throughout "The Color Blue." The Drapers receive a mysterious call one night encouraging Betty and Don to wonder if their respective lovers are the silent party (both Suzanne and Henry deny it). Meanwhile, if writing preserves the past it isn't always for good. Betty finds Don's key carelessly hidden in his laundry, and opens a bureau drawer to discover his box of mementos. I doubt she's anywhere close to figuring out who Dick Whitman is, but she's certainly struck by Don's divorce papers. She stays up late with the shoebox, but Don never comes home. He's taken to spending every evening with Suzanne, and on this particular evening he's driving her epileptic brother Danny (Marshall Allman) to a new job in Bedford, Massachusetts - at least until Danny convinces Don to let him exit the car and wander off into the darkness. Stymied by this unbelievable twist of fate, Betty never mentions her discovery to him, instead sitting silently by his side as a troubled presence at Sterling Cooper's 40th anniversary bash. After a decade of marriage, does she know him at all?

My Response:
Mad Men often balances its need to cultivate ongoing stories with intra-episode thematic conceits, and "The Color Blue" is one of the sharpest examples yet. Every story has to do with the difficulty of communication and several are also directly related to the fatalism of time passing. Not for nothing is the janitor (Hal Landon, Jr.) who inspires Paul named Achilles; everyone onscreen has an Achilles' heel related to time. A dialectic between endurance and spontaneity plays out everywhere. The anniversary party is a nice conceit to evoke many touchstones (even though they all remain publicly unspoken). Roger's tribute to Don reminds us of the stark division between them - as did their unpleasant interaction in "Wee Small Hours" (so much for Don's insistence to Bert). Roger's elderly mother (Shannon Welles) is utterly confused not just about the location of the Waldorf Astoria but also that Jane is Roger's new wife - "Does Mona know?" she innocently asks (I also learned, or more likely re-learned, that Roger is the son of the founding Sterling rather than a founder himself...which explains so much). Bert is shaken by the fact that all of his old colleagues are deceased, and haunted by the immense gap between now and those chipper founding days of 1923. And Lane is the bearer of bad (or at least unsettling) news that he can only share with his wife Rebecca (Embeth Davitz, whom I didn't recognize from Schindler's List): the British firm is looking for a buyer for Sterling Cooper. She seems satisfied that they can finally leave the dreaded America, but he knows what else may be in the offing. That stuffed snake on his windowsill is a reminder in more ways than one.

With the following episode titled "The Gypsy and the Hobo" (would it be too obvious to have a second "Hobo" episode calling back to the Depression?), I'm wondering if we will revisit the Whitman clan. I'd also like to know more about Suzanne's family and past - her affection for Danny suggests a very close bond perhaps borne from their father's early death as well as his own exposure and her tender nature. I think he also reminds Don of his own brother, whom he abandoned to an ugly fate. This time, Don says, he's going to "do it right" and gives the young man his card, telling him to call if he ever needs anything and speaking (from experience) to how Suzanne will never forgive himself if something happens to her little brother. How appropriate that this is what saves Don (for now) from Betty dredging up his own family's past. Betty's mystery box, opened by a secret key, is one of the most significant developments of the entire series so far. I could see the show elegantly allowing it to remain unspoken - in classic short story tradition, Don's decision to stay away from home this one night could mean he's avoided a window that will never re-emerge. More likely, however, the confrontation will occur sooner rather than later. Will we return to the past one more time before we leap into the great unknown future?

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