Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Dark Shadows" (season 5, episode 9)

Mad Men - "Dark Shadows" (season 5, episode 9)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 13, 2012/written by Erin Levy; directed by Scott Hornbacher): Never one to shy away from using holidays to illustrate themes, often by ironic counterpoint, Mad Men spends its latest Thanksgiving episode reminding its characters what they aren't thankful for. A slimmed-down but still heavier-than-usual Betty reappears, now visiting Weight Watchers and struggling not to overeat even if the temptation is a mere morsel (or a mouthful of whipped cream she spits out before succumbing). Visiting the city to pick up her kids, she is disturbed by the luxurious penthouse view, by the children's comfort with a friendly stepmother who kisses them all on their way out, and especially by a stolen glimpse of the svelte Megan getting dressed. In her comparatively frumpy overcoat and scarf, Betty makes a marked contrast to her hip, colorful replacement (we must strain our imaginations to summon the memory of Mrs. Francis' breathtaking glamor in the season two premiere, just four and a half years earlier). This contrast drives Betty to reinvent herself as the original replacement wife, informing Sally that Don used to be married to someone named Anna. Tension arises between Sally, Megan, and Don as the daughter, feeling betrayed, tests her new knowledge, but ultimately Betty does not succeed in driving that wedge very deep. Sally completes the family tree illustration that spurred this peek into Don's past (although how on earth does she deal with the question of her grandparents?!), gets an A+, and leaves Betty to sort out her own complicated feelings of pride and abandonment without a companion in misery.

At the office, Don develops a semi-pathetic rivalry with his newest employee, the brilliant Max. They each develop print campaigns for Sno-Ball and despite a consensus that Max's (snowballs chucked at unsympathetic figures) holds a slight edge over Don's (a devil relishing his dessert with the caption "Maybe things are about to change" - get it?), Don only shows his own work to the clients. Petty, but he's able to truly shiv the underling on a subsequent elevator ride as Don effortlessly swats down all of Max's snarling assertions. For all his creativity, the greatest Draper talent may be wielding power within interpersonal (at least professional) relations. Peggy, going through a rough patch, has her own elevator confrontation with Roger after he turns to Max instead of her. The senior partner is tagging Max into a Manischewitz campaign (based on none-too-subtly expressed assumptions by both Roger and a frail-looking Bert about Max's "Semitic" suitability). Roger's LSD-fueled euphoria fading, he nonetheless retains a trace of self-awareness from that trip. When he invites the Jewish Jane to a client meeting under false pretenses, feels a tinge of jealousy from her flirtation with the client's handsome son, and then beds his ex (in the apartment he supposedly bought her in order for her to forget about him), his guilt seems genuine if a bit too late.

Even in the most minor of subplots, Megan's reading with an actor friend for a campy gothic soap opera (from which the episode takes its name), the green-eyed monster rears its head. When Megan later warns Don not to open the sliding door to the balcony because the air quality is so poor, the metaphor is as overt as little Bobby's drawing of a smiling whale with bloody harpoons in its side, on the back of which (Betty discovers) Don has written a simple love note to his young wife about buying a light bulb so he can gaze upon her. When faced with dark shadows or a milky haze, best to flip the switch and close the door in order to focus on what you have rather than what you don't.

My Response:
The show has gone to this well before, most memorably in the final moments of the first season - when Don arrived home for Thanksgiving expecting, even envisioning, a warm family embrace, only to be confronted by the harsh reality of an empty house. What new insight does "Dark Shadows" bring to this material? According to many critics...not much. I only intermittently check on the wider reaction to a given episode but something about this one encouraged me to peek deeper into the Wikipedia article than I usually do. Perhaps I was inspired by the nagging sense that, after a cascade of blockbuster entries, there's less to hang onto here than usual, or perhaps it was scrolling through the episode visually, looking for screenshots and realizing that (aside from the very striking top image, obviously) this was not as eye-catching as other episodes have been: lots of characters sitting or standing and talking. Nonetheless, the critiques I've seen cited are over-the-top, with one even boldly declaring that this is a bad episode. It isn't that; in fact I enjoyed watching it quite a bit. It is, however, sort of ordinary - especially for this season. This allows us to ask what we're left with when the offering is otherwise routine, and the answer is: compelling characters. I laughed both at and with Max (in fact I laughed quite a lot, more than usual, throughout episode 9), I grinned and winced at Don's abrasively alpha covers for professional insecurity, and I winced as Roger, Peggy, and Betty all lashed out at others while struggling with the their own envious impulses.

This isn't to say that the episode isn't organized - in fact, one of the criticisms has been that it's too schematic in its depiction of jealousy and frustration infecting just about everyone onscreen. If the ideas aren't often subtle, they are nonetheless potent: Betty's predicament feels particularly sharp in a way that I don't find as unsympathetic as others do. But "Dark Shadows" brings home something I hadn't really thought about as season five jumped from strength to strength: all of these memorable episodes are just that, episodes, and the series hasn't really been building looming crises or dramatic tensions as it did in past years. Aside from Pete's desperate infatuation - I loved his ferociously vulgar retort to the blissfully oblivious Howard on the train - any threads that the fifth season has been developing are arguably already resolved. The increasingly discontent Megan left SCDP and both she and her former colleagues have carried on; her marriage to Don, even if threatened by a figurative toxic smog, appears secure. The Heinz campaign was finally rescued; Betty is steadily losing that extra weight; Joan and Greg are over with, as are Roger and Jane (something even their impromptu reunion only reinforces). Roger, Peggy, Max, Lane (where's he been?), even Don are all drifting, maybe somewhere, maybe nowhere, following jarring personal events. With five episodes to go, this season may need an unforeseen intervention to fuel further drama. If it ticks off the remaining hours hanging out with characters, checking in with current events, and luxuriating in period detail, I won't particularly complain but I will be disappointed given the power of the season's first half.

Next (active on August 16, 8am): "Christmas Waltz"Previous: "Lady Lazarus"

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