Listen closely and you can hear the sounds of cash registers ringing and execs high-fiving each other over at AMC Headquarters. That’s right, it’s that glorious time of year when The Walking Dead returns to our TV screens, and the network quits pretending it cares about little art-house pieces like Mad Men. With season two ending back in March, I had completely forgotten the show was starting up again. I only remembered to set my DVR because I saw AMC running commercials that said, “Stick with DISH. See if we care, pussies.”
It’s been a few months since Rick and the other survivors escaped the zombie hell that was Herschel’s farm. They’ve spent the winter scurrying across the countryside, looking for shelter and food. We know things have gotten pretty bad for them when we see Daryl stuffing owl feathers in his mouth and the “jackpot!” look Carl gets in his eyes when he comes across two cans of cat food. It’s obviously been a hard couple of months, and not only because of the lack of amenities. Living this way has obviously changed the group in very fundamental ways. But while everyone seems like they’ve made the best of a bad situation – Beth singing by the campfire, Daryl and Carol (the writers missed a golden opportunity not naming her Caryl) making jokes about fooling around – Rick looks like a man constantly staring Death in the face. Whatever it is, exhaustion, or just the weight of the responsibility of keeping these people alive has stretched the man to his limit.
But the prison we all saw amidst Bear McCreary’s Battlestar-esque beating drums at the end of last season seems to have given the group a slight reprieve. This just might be the long-term holdout Rick and the group have been looking for. I was a little surprised they were only now finding it. When we saw it the first time, it looked like the group had basically camped out in the parking lot. And was it really not on any of the maps they’ve been using, driving back and forth? Oh well. Sometimes TV shows do crazy things.
So Rick convinces the group that they should hole up there, at least for a little while. And no one really seems to disagree. I don’t know if this is because they all agree it’d be a good idea, or because the law Rick laid down at the end of last season – the Ricktatorship – is in full force, and nobody’s going to challenge him once he’s made up his mind. So they decide to go in, with the only serious challenge posed them is clearing the place out. And it’s here we see exactly what they’ve all learned after months on the run. The group works like a machine, systematically clearing out the prison yard. Inside, too, although close quarters and no lights made that half of it much harder. Of course, nothing on this show turns out just how Rick imagines it. Herschel gets bitten, and Rick is forced** to hack his leg off with an axe. And just as they’re all catching their breath and wiping Herschel’s leg spray from their faces, they find that they’re not alone inside the prison, that there’s a group of prisoners holed up there as well.
(**Was this just because of the infection one might get from being bitten from a rotten corpse? Because we know now that it doesn’t matter if you get bit or not. Once you die, you turn into a zombie. Everyone’s infected.)
So, more complications in a long string of complications. I also thought it was interesting to see that Rick’s given Lori one big hand to talk to ever since the baby bump stopped holding. Shane may be dead, but Rick’s grudge hasn’t. If Lori hadn’t of spent so much of the series up to this point being such a punk and then acting all shocked and shaken when she found out what Rick had done – despite signaling to him that that was exactly what needed to be done – I might feel sorry for her.
We didn’t get to see much of Michonne and Andrea this week. Andrea’s sick and she and Michonne go back and forth with their, “Just go! Let me die!” routine that we’ve seen oh so many times in the past. Well-tread ground made interesting again because of those two jawless zombies Michonne keeps on a leash. Let’s see more of them.
I had a pretty big rager whenever this show was first announced, but I have to say season one left me a little cold; it threw cold water all over my rager. Season two saw a huge jump in quality, and now, in season three, the show feel’s like a well-oiled machine. If you can get past some of the dialogue, that it. But I suppose as long as the show can keep delivering zombie getting their faces peeled off because their heads are rotting inside their riot gear, I’ll be able to manage. Somehow.
Listen closely. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of millions of Breaking Bad fans sobbing into their pillows at the realization that they’ll have to wait ten months before the show returns to wrap up its fifth season, or what will undoubtedly be referred to as Season 5, pt. 2 (*shudder*) once the Blu-rays are released.
No fun, but it is what it is. So now we’ll settle in and spend the next year wondering what exactly we’re going to see when the show comes back. And wonder who else will be left dead once all is said and done.
And it could be anyone. It’s shocking how unshocking it’s become to see people die on this show, and now that things are wrapping up, there isn’t much to hold the writers back. And considering where we saw Walt at the beginning of this season – don’t forget the flashforward where he was getting ready to go all Scarface on somebody – I wouldn’t be surprised if these next eight episodes are the bloodiest yet.
And if we’re all going in on the “Who Goes First” pool, I want to go ahead and reserve Hank now for my top spot. “But wait,” you say. “Would Walt really kill his brother-in-law?” I think he would. I’m not saying he wouldn’t feel bad about it. I think he’d cry, maybe sit by his pool for a while and stare off into the middle distance. But in the end he’d get that hard look in his eyes and say that it had to be done. In this episode alone, Walt had all of Mike’s guys taken care of, and was even ready to get rid of Lydia once she gave Walt their names. And every time, Walt’s been able to justify it because “there was no other way.” So, yes. I think that if Walt saw Hank as the only thing standing between him and freedom, he’d definitely kill him.
But even in light of that, I found that I was still rooting for Walt to win. As I watched Hank taking a dump (where some of the best work gets done, by the way), grab Walt’s copy of Leaves of Grass and read Gale’s inscription to him inside, I realized that I didn’t want him to catch Walt. That despite all the lives Walt had ruined, just so long as he could make a name for himself as a meth dealer, no matter how many friends he lost, or people he left dead and bloodied along the way, just so long as he could make a name for himself as a meth dealer, no matter how many friends he lost, or people he left dead and bloodied along the way… I still wanted to give him a pass. Why is that? I’ve rooted for anti-heroes in the past. Tony Soprano, for one (who, by all measures is much worse than Walter White). Al Swearengen. Newt Gingrich. But this season I had come to see Walt as someone who was beyond redemption. And the first half of “Gliding Over All” didn’t exactly do much to dispel that. The beautifully shot montage of all those guys in prison getting shanked to death and set on fire (and after watching Oz, I’m convinced that prison is the scariest place on the entire planet) showed Walt at his drug-kingpinniest (whenever someone makes a phone call and says only, “it’s done,” are they ever referring to something good, like “I just delivered the flowers”?). But we also caught a glimpse of Walt the husband and father, and Walt the guy who isn’t constantly being a dick to Jesse.
Walt had told Jesse that he wasn’t in the meth-cooking business or the money-making business. He was in the empire business, which was kind of a distinction without a difference. Walt was out to “build an empire” because of the money he felt he was cheated out of when he left Grey Matter, the company he co-founded with Elliot and Gretchen. So when Skyler comes home and asks Walt to take a ride with her, then shows him the EFFING GIGANTIC pile of money he’s put together and tells him it’s more than they can spend in ten lifetimes, something clicks and thoughts of empire go right out of Walt’s head. This money is what he’s worked for. Whether he lives or dies, he’s provided for his family, so when Skyler asks him to walk away from the meth business, he sees that and is able to say yes.
And it’s like a huge weight lifts off his shoulders. He brings Jesse his share of the money (which doesn’t look like very much when compared to what we saw) and the two share a few awkward moments reminiscing about old times, when they were just two crazy kids cooking bootleg meth, living on a hope and a prayer. Walt’s too proud to say he’s sorry, but he was probably sorry for the way he treated him. Although if the choice were between hearing someone say they were sorry or giving me five million dollars, I’d probably choose the cash (but that’s just me). After visiting Jesse, we see Walt eating dinner on the back porch, with Skyler, Hank, and Marie, the whole thing a very different scene from their dinner just a few weeks ago. Walt was happy! He and Skyler smiled at each other! The future was looking good, and it looks like it’s all going to be shot to hell because Hank’s legs may be getting better, but his sphincter’s shutter speed still has a way to go.
I thought this was a good place to end the (half) season. Emotionally, I responded to it, and whether that response is something I like or dislike, it’s all I can really ask from good television. My only concern is that the show is just looking for places to go in its last few episodes. Walt hooking up with Gus, then moving against him all felt very organic. It felt like that was where the story was supposed to go. Much of what’s been introduced this season – Landry, Landry’s uncle, setting part of the business up in the Czech Republic – has seemed like two or three seasons condensed into four or five episodes. We’ve spent four years lifting Walt up, and only one tearing him down. It’s felt different from what’s come before, and I just hope it feels like one piece once the dust’s settled. Then again, the writers have yet to disappoint me, so maybe I should just shut up about it. Okay. What was I talking about? Right. Hank.
Heisenberg may be Hank’s white whale, so there isn’t much question whether or not he’ll go after Walt if he truly believes he’s the man who killed Gus Fring. And like I said, I have no doubt Walt will look to head him off if he thinks Hank’s onto him. So maybe Walt’s promise to Skyler wasn’t all it seemed. It could be that a year from now, we’ll see that Walt was never really able to walk away.
In the meantime, Boardwalk Empire’s third season begins Sunday, September 16th.
I had to watch this episode a couple of times, because the first time around I just hated it. Well, most of it. I’ve mentioned before that Skyler is really putting me through the ringer this season, and that last week’s episode was a perfect storm of several things I hated about her and Marie. Well, this week the show notched it up to 11. And because Skyler and Marie alone aren’t enough, it threw this woman from Madrigal Electric into the mix.
There’s a never-ending debate raging on the internet about this or that show having weak female characters. This debate usually comes with charges of sexism thrown at whatever writer would dare to portray women in such a way. I think a lot of these arguments get overblown. Can we just be honest and say that there are weak women out there — the same as there are weak men — and that sometimes these weak people have a part to play in whatever story the writer’s trying to tell?** A woman on TV might not be able to stand up for herself or can’t say no to men, but Walt White’s a murderer! I think we may be losing perspective. Anyway.
(**Now, don’t take this as me writing off every argument against women in television who are portrayed as weak. Sometimes these arguments hold a lot of water. Right now I’d point you to The Newsroom, where just about every female character comes off as borderline schizophrenic.)
So if there’s a weak woman written into a show, you’re not going to get a lot of argument from me, so long as that weakness has grown organically from the story. If we’re talking about Skyler in this season of Breaking Bad, I don’t think that’s the case. Yes, she knows that it was Walt who took care of Gus. And she sees that it’s a terrible thing she’s done to Ted, but Skyler has never been a stupid person. And I just can’t believe that she knew her husband was in the meth business and at the same time had some fantasy in her head where he doesn’t work with dangerous people or ever get his hands dirty or bad people would never want to do to him what he did to Gus. So this thing she does where she looks around while her lip quivers and then jumps into a swimming pool just comes off totally unbelievable to me. And what makes it worse is that I always saw Skyler as a strong woman, and they’ve kind of turned her into a wreck.
That being said, Walt bringing the smackdown on whatever plan she had to get Junior and Holly out of the house I think may have put the two of them on equal footing. At least now Skyler can be upfront with Walt about her feelings, or her lack of feelings for him, whatever the case may be. It was a confrontation that needed to happen. Walt’s not going to move out of the house, so love him or hate him, he and Skyler are going to have to find some way to live with each other. Skyler chain smoking cigarettes is progress, and that’s something.
Other things. It seems as if this season is going to show us exactly how committed Walt is to being a drug kingpin. He talks a big game, but even he seems to be under some of the same delusions as Skyler if he really thinks he can keep his work life walled off from his family life 100% of the time. In any case, he’s going to have a big decision to make concerning Lydia from Madrigal, who we find out may be bullshitting about the tracking device on the barrel of methylamine Jesse had come to pick up. I understand that the reasons to feel sympathetic toward Walt and Jesse are dwindling faster than a Russian gymnasts’ hopes for a gold medal (TOPICAL!), but you can still make the case that these are two guys who are trying to live with one leg in and one leg out of the drug business. SOOOOO I get that maybe they don’t want to kill Lydia — and Jesse obviously doesn’t — but after watching so many movies and TV shows about drug dealers only doing business with people they know and vetting new customers, you kind of get it ingrained in your head that someone as neurotic as Lydia running around, freaking out, and more importantly knowing all of Mike’s dirty secrets is a huge loose end. I mean, aren’t we watching the beginning of the end here?
I know this one is coming late, so let’s cut the crap! No preambles, on to the review!
Walter White is a bad dude, and a big part of his journey from good guy to bad guy was working with Gus. But Walt’s work in the superlab is very different from his work with Vamonos Pest (love it) insofar as it impacts his character. Let me explain. Right from the start you could look at Gus as a predator, someone that Walt would have been ill-advised to screw around with. But, at heart Walt’s a selfish person whose ambitions will only get bigger until his cancer or Mike or some other damn thing puts him in the cold, cold ground so you knew it was only a matter of time before these two guys went head to head. And they did, and we all know how that turned out.
But it wasn’t all out war, guns blazing right from the start. Walt had to play it smart. But Gus was also playing it smart, so Walt had to learn how to play the game smarter. Which he did. And now that Gus is gone, Walt’s entered a new phase in his career. A phase that is less about learning than it is about the being the boss. So, while the goings on at Vamonos are and will continue to be important to the story, I think they’re less important than they were at the superlab. Does that make sense? I hope not.
These Women This Woman. Skyler is kind of driving me crazy this season. And a big piece of that is the complete 180 she’s made since last season, when she was really gung-ho about laundering Walt’s ill-gotten money. It’s going to be a long season if most of what we see is Skyler trying to figure out what to do with her hands while staring off into the middle distance because she’s worried about what Walt might do to the family. Or if we get any more scenes like Skyler and Marie at the car wash, which was like a perfect storm of crazy and all the things I hate about characters who are in the middle of a nervous breakdown (although I imagine most of you would say the same thing to Marie, given the chance). If one good thing came out of any of this this week, it was Walt telling Marie about Skyler’s affair with Beneke, and showing that he’s not above manipulating everything and everyone around him when the situation warrants it.
2. The End. I went back and forth on how to interpret this last scene with Walt talking to Jesse about why Gus killed Victor. Part of me thought it was a veiled warning to Jesse for offering to pay both his and Walt’s share of Mike’s legacy costs from his cut. Once he made the offer, there was no way Walt could just sit back and let him do it. He had to man up and offer to pay his share, too. Walt telling Jesse that Victor had “flown too close to the sun” may have been his way of telling him to sit the hell back and don’t butt in when the adults are talking business. A friend suggested that this was Walt letting Jesse know that if Mike didn’t change his cheating ways, it’d be him they were stuffing into a barrel. Upon much thought and reflection, I have to admit that seems the more logical of the two. Despite the horrible person he’s become, I think Walt genuinely cares for Jesse, and isn’t looking to get him out of the picture. At least not right now. While they’re throwing back a few brews, waiting for their batch to cook, Walt at least gives Jesse the choice whether or not to drop Andrea, although he steers him in that direction. But anyway, yeah, Walt was probably talking about Mike.
3. Scarface. I’m surprised it took the show this long to reference the movie. We’re all pretty sure this is where we’re headed, right? We know that a year from now, Walt is meeting Jim Beaver in a Denny’s bathroom, purchasing some pretty heavy firepower. So you’d think something bad is coming down the pipeline. Just remember what Walt says while watching the movie: “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?”
4. Landry Clarke. Jesse Plemons joining the cast may be the best news I’ve heard all year.
Up until now, Walt and Jesse have had things pretty easy, relatively speaking. Since they started working for Gus, all they’ve had to do is sit in the lab and cook**. But now Gus is gone, and if Walt and Jesse want to keep earning money they’re actually going to have to run things. That’s production, marketing, distribution, catering, the whole nine. And it’s obvious right from the start that the two of them can’t handle it alone. And that means bringing Mike onboard.
(**Sure, in between all that they had to go out and kill Gale and Gus, but, you know, work, amirite? Sometimes you just gotta stay late.)
Now, if you’ll remember, Mike has his reservations about Walt. Mainly that he’s a crazy person who’ll get them all landed in prison or killed. So it’s not too much of a surprise when Walt and Jesse visit him, offer him an equal share of whatever profits they make, and Mike turns them down flat. He’s getting old. He wants to spend time with his granddaughter. And then there’s the whole landing in prison or getting killed thing. Walt — who’s coming across as a completely different person this season — almost looks like he expected Mike’s answer. And from the slight smile we see on his face, almost enjoys the BS back-and-forth. He tells Mike to sleep on in, and I think he knows Mike will reconsider.
And in the end, Mike has no choice but to reconsider. As cold as Mike is, he can’t bring himself to kill Lydia. And if he keeps her around, he accepts the possibility that she’s going to come after him again. She already tried, sending Chris his way. And if she can be stupid once, she can be stupid twice. And now that the Feds have drained the account Mike had tucked away for his granddaughter, he’s in need of a new income source. So he calls Walt up, tells him he’s in, and Walt does a little victory lap around his kitchen. And why not? This guy’s getting everything he wants. And with that, gone are the days are the bumbling chemistry teacher, whose desperation belied just how scared of Gus he was. Now, Walt’s in control. And not just of the business, but those around him. I’m glad to see him and Jesse working together this season (why can’t everyone just get along?), but it was kind of sad to see Jesse played like a cheap fiddle in his search for the missing ricin**. And after a long day of manipulating those around him, Walt comes home to sooth his wife’s frazzled nerves while she stares with puffy eyes into the middle distance. I’m wondering if the show’s going to end every episode this season with Walt doing and saying something to Skyler that makes you want to take a shower.
(**Which Walt did not get rid of, and which I think we can safely assume we’ll see again before the series ends. Because as the saying goes, any time someone takes out a vial of ricin, you know they’re gonna use it.)
And speaking of Skyler, I’ve got questions about where the show’s taking her this season. Unfortunately, not all character arcs are created equal, and sometimes a show just comes off as a little clueless on how to handle this or that character. A good example would be Apollo from Battlestar Galactica. From season to season, it seemed like the show just really didn’t know what to do with him. First he’s a pilot, then he’s in the government, etc, and I’m wondering if Sklyer’s following a similar path. Last season we saw her embrace Walt’s business (which itself was a turnaround from the season before), and with the carwash, actively help him to cover up his tracks. Now we see her not even able to get out of bed, and I’m worried she may be snapping back in the other direction. I can understand a character having reservations about something, and Skyler should have had some major reservations about getting involved in Walt’s business. But once they commit, I like to see them commit. They can only go back and forth so many times.
And speaking of Hank, how many of you noticed that while he and Gomez were in ASAC Merkert’s office talking about Gus, Hank grabbed Merkert’s whiskey and topped off everyone’s cup? It’s small, I know, but I’m still trying to figure out how Hank’s obsession with
rocks minerals was worth the time we spend on it last year, and I’m hoping we don’t see him go off in some other crazy direction, like becoming a drunk. I know, the chances of that happening are pretty small, I admit. But then again, minerals. Of course, it’s just as likely that Hank will go off in the complete opposite direction. The mystery of Gale’s death got him out of his funk last season, and now that things are heating up with Madrigal, it’s possible he’ll turn into supercop and bust Walt’s door down. It’s possible. But then again, minerals.
A quick word about Madrigal. Alan Sepinwall praised the show’s set design in showing the company’s German office. But as a snobby asshole who used to live there, I saw one GLARING omission. Light switches. American light switches, of course, look like this (what we saw at Madrigal), while German light switches look like this. I understand there was no chance that production was going to take off across the Atlantic to shoot a five minute scene, but still, I hope the show is retroactively stripped of all its Emmys.
YES. Really, what more can I say? We’ve finally come out of the desert and into television’s Promised Land. I love Game of Thrones. I love Mad Men. But those two shows are like the secret family I keep hidden in Canada. In the end, Breaking Bad is the woman I come home to every night.
Tonight we begin Walter White’s endgame. Now, there are only fifteen episodes left, and I don’t know whether it’s a crazier ride not knowing where Walt and Jesse are going to end up, or knowing that Vince Gilligan doesn’t know either. You may have noticed that tonight’s premiere opened up about a year ahead of where we are in the show’s timeline. And at first, I thought we were going to go back to what the show did in its second season, where it slowly meted out the fate of Wayfarer Flight 515 over the course of the season’s teasers. But in an interview with ZAP2it, Gilligan says that it may be some time before the show circles back around to this particular thread (think next summer). So, it may be a while before we get hard answers, but there’s a lot I think we can safely conclude from what we saw tonight. If Walt’s on the road, using a fake ID, different hair and glasses and a full beard, buying some pretty heavy ordnance off Deadwood’s Jim Beaver (remember his appearance in season 4?), it looks like the king (as it looks like Walt is, with Gus out of the way) may have been knocked off his throne.
And assuming the saga of Breaking Bad ends badly for Walter White, which I think is the consensus out there, can any of us really claim to be surprised? I’ve been reading a lot about the mafia and the Mexican drug cartels recently, and the one thing I’ve seen pop up again and again is that the guys on top end up either dead or in prison. There are several reasons for this. Greed, carelessness, getting taken out by some young’n who wants your job. So these guys have already got a pretty bad track record, and when you add that the effing horror stories you see coming out of places like Juarez, you wonder why anyone would go into this business (well, I guess the money is pretty good). All I can hear is Tobias from Arrested Development saying, “But it might work for us.” Anyway, it doesn’t seem like Walt is interested in learning the lessons of his fallen comrades. Like he told Skyler, he won, and he won by being really smart, so he’s just gonna sit back and soak it in for a while.
But like Biggie reminded us, more money equals more problems (direct parallel, nailed it), and even though Gus is out of the way, Walt and Jesse aren’t home free. A lot of tonight’s premiere was about tying up loose ends. Walt has to get rid of the bomb-making materials lying around his kitchen. And just as he’s done that we see him run back outside to dispose of the Lilly of the Valley plant he used to poison Brock. Mike’s still out there**, as pissed off and cranky as ever. And it turns out that the Albuquerque police have got their hands on the hard drive Gus was storing all that camera footage of Walt and Jesse cooking on. So, you know, the to-do list is filling up.
(**And didn’t Mike’s reunion with Walt and Jesse feel a little clipped? I have a feeling we might see an extended cut of the premiere once the DVD comes out.)
And even though Jesse’s the one who has the idea of using a magnet to wipe the computer’s hard drive, Walt’s the one who implements it. There are a few bumps in the road, but a plan that by all accounts should have failed miserably came off, which only served to puff up Walt’s already over-inflated ego. As they’re speeding away, and Mike asks what proof Walt has that their plan actually worked, Walt sits back all smug and says, “Because I said so.” So Walt’s changed.
And you know what? I think we can accept that, and even sympathize with it to a certain extent. Walt’s plan to take out Gus was pretty brilliant, with the Hectorbomb and whatnot. And we’re all fans of violence and stuff, so watching Gus with half his face blown off scratched an itch. But by the end of the episode I think Walt’s well on his way to getting rid any goodwill he may have built up over the couple of episodes. He has his sit down with Saul, who recaps the entire Beneke ordeal and explains why Skyler gave away more than $600,000. So Walt goes home, hugs his wife who’s so obviously terrified of him now**, and tells her that he forgives her.
(**Okay, a couple of things about Skyler. 1. Was she serious when she told Walt that with all the money they were making at the car wash last season that he could start thinking about an exit strategy from his cartel gig? If Walt’s the cook for the entire Southwestern meth trade, to the point where he or Jesse taking a day off screws up business, then there is no quitting. He’s got the job for life. And 2. I understand that Skyler might have a legitimate reason for being scared of Walt, now that she’s finding out that in addition to cooking meth he may also be a stone cold killer, but I’m really getting sick of her bi-polar attitude toward him from season to season. She’s already made the decision to stay with him, even help him, so I hope we don’t see her relitigating that decision too much. Especially when we see how hard she turned in the scene with Ted, when he promised not to tell anyone what happened, because hey, he’s got a family.)
I see Walt as Tony Soprano. Bad things that happen aren’t his fault. In this case, the stuff with Ted really wasn’t his fault, but he came at the situation as if he and Skyler weren’t do things together. It was all Skyler. The thing that’s interesting about the Walt/Tony comparison is that Tony grew up with organized crime. He’s the boss so he’s got the huge ego and sense of self-importance that goes with it, but I think he knew when to keep it under control. Walt’s just getting a taste for this now after kind of being walked on his entire life, so he hasn’t developed that control yet. And if he can’t, if “The Life” is just too much for him to handle, then he’s probably gonna join Gus and all those other dead cartel guys sooner rather than later.
The times, they are a’changin’. For Mad Men as well as all the characters in it. I’m a huge apologist for all the shows I love, so it’s easier for me to say that the show’s just as good as it’s always been, it’s just telling different stories than we’re used to. I know there are a few people out there who wouldn’t agree, but whatever.
Don’s getting older, and if all the bright colors and loud music the kids are so into these days weren’t enough of a reminder of that, he’s got Megan in the kitchen cooking IN HER BARE FEET to really drive the message home. In a conversation about pop culture, Megan tells Don that everybody’s trying to catch up to it because it’s always changing. That’s probably something Don’s more likely to roll his eyes at and walk away from, like we see him do at the end of the episode while listening to The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Still, that knowledge — or fear, rather — that the world is beginning to move more quickly than Don’s able to keep up with is ever-present. That’s what that empty elevator shaft symbolized, in case you were wondering. Staring into the abyss. Into a world that has no place for him. All that good stuff.
Again, we find ourselves contrasting Don’s relationships with Betty and Megan. When he and Betty were still married, we saw that Don had kind of adopted a “there’s the door” policy any time Betty found that she was unhappy with her station in life. Regardless of whether or not Betty was justified in being upset, Don didn’t really care.** But now, with Megan, I really think Don’s recognizes there’s a possibility that she could leave him. So whenever she wakes him up in the middle of the night and says that she doesn’t really want to go into advertising, he says “mazel tov,” wishes her luck on the acting scene, and really swallows his feelings about the whole thing.
(**Although, to be honest, you have to know and understand what’s going on before you can choose to care about it or ignore it. I don’t think Don ever really took the time to understand the things Betty was going through.)
But Don’s anger follows the Law of Conservation of Mass. That is, it can neither be created nor destroyed. And if Don isn’t going to yell at Megan for leaving the biz, he’s sure as hell going to take it out on Peggy, because she never gave Megan a chance and everyone at the office is petty and blah blah blah. Peggy’s not having it, and when she tells Don to shut up, well, I did a little victory lap around my sofa. Peggy Olson, how far you’ve come.
Peggy’s come a long way with all of her relationships at SCDP. She yells at Don. A few weeks ago she wasn’t afraid to tell Bert that she was leaving the office in the middle of the day to go to the movies. This week, when Pete stumbled by her office with his arms full of skiing equipment, she needles him, asking if he’s a really good skier. Like, famous good. This doesn’t really have any huge relevance to the episode, but it’s a nice reminder of how much Peggy’s grown as a character.
Speaking of Pete, things really aren’t going well for him. Well, let’s qualify that. Professionally, things are looking up. People know his name and want to work with him. They’re sending him expensive skis. Roger seems happy with the whole things and is content to sit on the sidelines while Pete does the real work. At home, it’s a different story. But I don’t think the show has done as good a job as it did with Don showing the audience why Pete would be so unsatisfied with life with Trudy. What little we’ve seen points to him feeling emasculated for some reason. Don coming in life effing Superman and fixing his sink while Trudy, Megan, and Alex Mack jump up and down, dripping wet, and cheering. He’s been rebuffed by the girl from his driver’s ed class and, in tonight’s episode, by Rory Gilmore. This is a side of Pete’s life we’re only really starting to get into, so who knows where it’ll go. But right now, Pete looks like he’s ready to drive off a cliff.
What was I talking about? Right. Don and Megan. Their relationship is fundamentally different than his and Betty’s. Gabbing in the breakroom — as the fairer sex is wont to do — Joan talks Megan up as if she and Betty, and Don’s relationship to both of them, is the exact same thing. Megan’s leaving the company to pursue acting. Don met Betty at a photo shoot, etc. Peggy’s the one who says that isn’t the case, and that Megan is the woman Don’s always been looking for. And because of that, he’s willing to do a lot more for her than other women he’s shared a bed with. That includes trying to navigate the world Megan still travels in. Although that’s easier said than done. Halfway through “Tomorrow Never Knows,” (I wonder how much the show paid to use the song) Don shuts the record off and walks out of the room. I guess finding his way there is going to take Don some time.
Great episode, or greatest episode?
Look, I’m going to be honest. In my private, dark moments, I worry about Mad Men. I’ve been tainted by shows like Lost. I like to know that a show’s going somewhere. Shows like Lost you know are headed toward a definitive ending. An ending for a show like Mad Men is a little harder to define. Because the show could end in any one of a million ways, it’s a little easier to see it losing direction and floundering in its later seasons. But, for all those who’ve ever suffered a similar crisis of faith, know that there are episodes like “Signal 30.” Episodes that show up, stroke your hair like the mom from the Children’s Tylenol commercial, and let you know that Matthew Weiner is wise and good, and that all is right with the show. Also the world.
What do we love about Mad Men? We love the fact that Don is really Superman with a drinking problem. We love that Lane is British. We love watching Roger wax nostalgic. And we love hating on Pete. “Signal 30″ had all of that.
We’ll talk about Don and Pete first, since the show ended with the two of them in the elevator. Pete, his eyes puffy and his face swollen from his smackdown with Lane, and Don, wishing there was a window he could climb out of. It was an interesting role reversal these two had tonight. Almost since the show began, we’ve looked at Peggy as a sort of proto-Don, who, as a professional ad-(wo)man is slowly being made in his image. But tonight, we saw Pete as the new Don, with the real Don (also the old Don) watching him make the same mistakes he made all those years ago. When Don, Roger, and Pete take a Jaguar exec out for a bit of wining and dining and end up at a classy whorehouse, Pete gets his horndog on with an anonymous stranger while Don sits outside, nursing his drink. On the cab ride home, Pete acts incensed, coming right out and asking his boss where his balls have disappeared to, and accusing Don of judging him. Don tells Pete that he speaks from a lot of experience, and that if Pete plays fast and loose with his family like that then he really runs the risk of losing them. Don goes on to say that was a lesson he would have learned a lot sooner if he had married Megan before Betty.
Pete’s always been a small man trying to live in a big man’s world. And whenever you pull back, just to take a look around and seriously ask what it is that Pete doesn’t have, you see that it’s just that: he doesn’t feel like man. He’s got the wife and kid, the job, the house, which are all things you should feel good about. But all it takes is one dinner party, one leaky faucet, and one Don taking his short off and fixing everything with his bare man hands (not to mention being turned down by the 13-year old at drivers ed) to let all the air out of Pete’s balloon and make him feel like a loser. And when a guy like Pete feels like a loser, he has to make some grand gesture to recover his manhood.
That opportunity presented itself in the form of Lane Pryce, fresh off his own rejection, after discovering that the Jaguar deal had gone kaput after the exec’s wife found CHEWING GUM ON HIS PUBIS (something I imagine has ruined more than a few good days). Lane, who knew the exec and was trying to play the account man and close the deal for the agency, just wasn’t getting the job done. And now when he sees that Pete, Don, and Roger have turned everything all sixes and sevens (BRITISH!) he’s ready to come down on everyone with great vengeance and furious anger. Pete, little asshole that he is, chooses that moment to ask Lane what exactly it is he does at the agency anyway, and now Lane’s unbuttoning his short, ready to throw down. Our reaction is much like Don’s, Roger’s, and Bert’s: we know this shouldn’t be happening, that we should probably put a stop to it, but we just. Can’t. Turn. Away. So we close the curtain and let the two have at it.
Was there a single person watching the show who wasn’t rooting for Lane to hand Pete’s ass to him? I don’t think so. And luckily, we weren’t disappointed. With Pete laid out proper, Lane marches out of the room, bollocks hanging down to his knees. And he really deserved it. Life is treating him better than it was last season, but still, that guy doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to be happy about. And I know that knocking Pete out would make me happy, so it was nice to see Lane be able to mark that one up on the scoreboard.
With all the Pete/Lane/Don craziness, there was one nice moment in the show that kind of got glossed over. And that was Roger giving Lane pointers for his lunch with the Jaguar exec. I don’t think the show would ever get rid of John Slattery, but it isn’t hard to see him on his way out of the professional world. Roger is a guy who’s even having to say bye to his bad good days, where he’s not doing a ton of account work, but he’s still around, helping where he can with the agency’s bigger clients. He still does some of that. But it seems like he’s looked at more and more like a joke, and that Pete’s slowly taking all the real work he does away from him. And that’s not just how the show looks at him, but the audience as well. We don’t see him doing anything substantive, so it was nice to hear his talk with Lane. Giving him real advice on how to handle a meeting like this, and show that this was a business Roger really knew a lot about, and that his talents are kind of being wasted, just sitting in his office reading the newspaper. I also liked hearing him commiserate some with Ken, a “fellow unappreciated author.”
So, shame on me. I was wrong to think that Mad Men was a ship that could ever lose its way. We know that after this year, the show will most likely see another two seasons, and I take great comfort knowing that the show still has new things to show us about these characters, and new places to take them. Seriously great comfort, you guys.
Man. After seeing what Don did to Bobbie Barrett back in season 2, I’ve always had the feeling that this guy is a little crazy. Maybe not Dexter crazy, but definitely Tony Soprano crazy. He’s the kind of guy who does a reasonably good job of keeping his temper in check, but when he or his interests are very obviously threatened, he lashes out, grabbing a hold of your private parts and whispering menacing things in your ear. And after Bobbie, we saw that Don wasn’t above hitting a woman. And tonight, we saw that Don wasn’t above strangling a woman to death and kicking her lifeless body underneath his bed, snuggling up under his sheets and going back to sleep.
Now, if we’re those viewers who are so in love with Don Draper that we refuse to believe that any of the horrible things he does actually reflect on his character, then we can write this little episode off in a couple of different ways. One is that it was all a dream, and we do all sorts of cray things in our dreams, right? I mean, if I had a nickel for every person I’ve strangled in a dream, I’d be able to open a savings account or something. I’m not a violent person. All I’m saying is that it happens. If we’re looking at things a little deeper, and taking the fact that Matthew Weiner graduated from the David Chase School of Television Writing into account, then we’ll know that one of the things he learned there was how to use a dream sequence to illustrate some inner struggle a character is going through. We can view this as significant, or tell ourselves that even in his dream Don was delirious.
By now you should know that it’s significant.
Remember, all of this was happening against the backdrop of the Richard Speck murders in July of 1966. Speck was (obviously) a murderer who raped, tortured and killed eight student nurses who worked at the South Chicago Community Hospital. So I think it’s safe to say that’d it be FOOLISH for us to assume that the violence perpetrated against these women didn’t figure prominently in this episode for a reason. But what’s the connection? It can’t just be that Don’s a sadist and feels violently toward women. Remember that Bobbie was kind of blackmailing him when he had his Tony Soprano moment with her in “The Benefactor.” And he was kind of being blackmailed with this woman in tonight’s episode. And what was in jeopardy in this episode was his relationship with Megan. It’s looking for and more like Don is making a serious run at putting his cheating ways behind him for good. He really does seem to be more “in love” with Megan than he was with Betty. When they were still married and had one of those moments when it seemed like they were finally going to start treating each other right, their relationship snapped back to indifferent fairly quickly. But despite the fact that they’ve been married for months, Don is still complimenting Megan on the way she looks, and it seems like they’re still having a reasonable amount of trouble keeping their hands off each other while outside the apartment. They look like they’re in love. So, we can assume — at least for now because who knows that Weiner will throw at us as the season goes on — that Don’s gut reaction to what was happening in his dream was to protect his relationship with Megan at all costs. And Don really took that “at all costs” bit to heart, amirite?
But a final interpretation of this whole thing changes when you look at this as something that really happened (which we know it didn’t, but there’s no reason to believe Don knew that in the moment), and something that happened in Don’s head. If it’s something that really happened, then what Don was reacting to was just what I said: a threat to his marriage. But if we look at this as something that happened in Don’s head, then what he was reacting to is open to interpretation. This woman who Don used to work with and slept with on I’m assuming a couple of occasions caught him in a vulnerable position. He was sick and alone. Don told her that he wasn’t the guy she used to run around with and asked her to leave several times. And each time she came back at him, even coming back to his apartment after he had kicked her out. She gets him while he’s lying in bed, and finally Don succumbs and they do their thing. Whenever it’s all over, she tells Don that they’ll do this again, and brushes him off when he tells her it isn’t going to happen. And it’s only then that he snaps and strangles her. Here, if we take this women to be a representation of Don’s weaknesses, we could look at it as Don striking out at a part of himself. A weakness that he doesn’t like and wants to get rid of. I said that Don isn’t a sadist, but we know he’s a masochist (remember this little chestnut?).
Don’s got problems any way you look at it. He had a bad childhood. He stole someone’s identity while in Korea. And you couldn’t describe his marriage to Betty as healthy. But, he’s trying to be better. And if you look at the fact that this dream Don had was brought on by a fever, then you could even look at it as symbolic. Representative of Don getting better, and becoming a better person. It’s something to think about.
Perhaps less interesting, but more of a reason to pump our fists in the air, “Mystery Date” marked the return of the dreaded Greg Harris, Joan’s douchebag husband who I think most people were hoping would get killed in Vietnam. Greg’s only been home for a couple of hours when he tells Joan that, in ten days, he’s going to have to ship back out to Vietnam for another year. And when Joan thinks that these are his orders and that he never had a say in it, she finds a way to deal with it. But at dinner that night she discovers that Greg volunteered to go back, and that, obviously, is a bridge too far. She tells him that she’s tired of trying to make him feel like he’s a good man when she knows he isn’t.**And if there’s some need he’s got that the military’s fulfilling that she’s not, well, he can just get the hell out. And he does. Of course, not before he throws out a token, “If I walk out that door IT’S OVER!” But Joan’s not having any of that, so he goes.
(**Remember when Greg raped her before they got married? Well, Joan’s held onto that AND SO HAVE WE.)
Honestly, I was surprised to see the show get rid of Greg so quickly, and so cleanly (although I guess they could always bring him back). It’s too bad Joan’s relationship isn’t looking as good as Don’s right now, all things considered. But, it might help clear the way for Joan and Roger to get back together. You know you want it.
Come on. You knew Betty was going to finish Sally’s sundae.**
(**And can we take just a moment to appreciate Betty’s fat suit? Betty joins and elite group of actors who have donned a fat suit to better illustrate the rut their character has sunk into. Can you think of many more than Lee Adama from Battlestar Galactica and Mad Men’s own Peggy Olsen?)
Toward the end of the tonight’s episode, Roger asks Don, “When are things going to go back to normal?” I think Don’s probably asking himself the same thing. You get the sense that overall, his marriage to Megan is happier than his marriage to Betty was. And I don’t think that’s a superficial happiness. I think it’s genuine. There have been a few moments between the two of them where you see Don swallow his anger more quickly than he might have with Betty. He was right in saying however many seasons ago that living with Betty was like living with a little girl. And using that same comparison, living with Megan is like living with a 26 year old (they said she was 26, right?). She’s smart, mature, and becoming increasingly independent. Betty was high-maintenance. Megan isn’t.
Still, there’s a level of comfort in Don’s relationship with Betty that, even after the nastiness of their divorce, never really went away. Like ass-grooves worn in a couch after years of use, they’ll probably be there forever. And Betty calling Don up after her doctor found a lump in her throat that was possibly cancerous was a nice moment between the two of them.** Don telling Betty that everything was going to be alright actually made her feel like maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed, that she’d actually be alright. I don’t know if that familiarity made Don feel better, but it definitely reminded him that this is a woman who he, on some level, still has feelings for.
(**Although Betty’s line about Don saying what he always says does kind of reinforce that little girl thing.)
Anyway. How does all this relate back to what Roger said about things getting back to normal? Well, even though Don has a good thing going with Megan, something healthier than his relationship with Betty was, I think there’s something in the back of Don’s head that wants to go back to that, even though there’s something else right beside that that knows how destructive their relationship had become.
That feeling’s only made stronger by the fact that there’s something about Don that can’t help but look at Megan like she’s his daughter. And it’s not an overt thing. It’s just something that’s there. Something that makes him more aware of the divide between him and young people. While he’s backstage, talking to the groupie who’ll just do anything to impress the Rolling Stones, you see how concerned he becomes whenever he finds out just how far she’d go to impress them. Whenever she tells Don that people like him just don’t want people like her having any fun, he tells her that actually it’s because people like him are concerned for people like her. So I think Don’s generally overcome by this feeling of nostalgia, and probably looking back on his life with Betty through rose-colored glasses. There’s a chance she’s really sick, so he can kind of only remember the good times the two of them had together.
What’s going on with Roger is much more self-pitying than Don’s thing. This thing between him and Pete has been brewing up for a while now and it’s finally worn him down. You saw before — last week’s premiere was a good example — that Roger was happy to play the game with Pete, showing up to client meetings uninvited, things like that. Pete sees what he’s doing, recognizes the fact that he’s trying to keep himself relevant to the company, and when Mohawk Air officially comes back to SCDP, very publicly makes a move to protect his flank. Don follows Roger when he stomps out of the room and tells him that, yes, it was disrespectful, and that’s about all he says. Almost like what he wasn’t saying was, “What the hell are you going to do about it?” People like Pete are the future, and will be there long after Roger’s in the cold, cold ground. And I think that attitude kind of informs his conversation with the groupie at the concert. When he told her that people like him were concerned for people like her, that’s all it was. It wasn’t angry. It was like he was telling her just so she’d know, because Don knows that in the end, people like her are going to do whatever they want. Kind of like Pete. And I think that may be the reason you don’t see Don getting mad and Megan the way he’d get mad at Betty.
But — and this is a big but — it’s early days, and there’s all sorts of time for Don to go back to his cheating ways, and be as big a dick to Megan and everyone else as he’s ever been. So, look out for that.
A few other things:
- All things considered, Henry’s a better husband than Don. But I still enjoy the thumb Betty sticks in his eye when she calls Don after finding out she might be sick.
- Why didn’t Henry’s mom every take diet pills? Betty says things other people only think!
- How long until Peggy and Michael Ginsburg are pushing all their work off the table and getting busy?
- Did anyone else catch the George Romney reference? He’s the clown Henry doesn’t want Nelson Rockefeller standing next to. Apparently, the show name-checking his grandfather was something Tagg Romney didn’t take very kindly to. Still trying to figure out how AMC is part of the liberal media.
- Again, you knew Betty was gonna get ALL UP IN Sally’s sundae.