Joe Chiarenzelli is an editor at The Gadfly Press and wishes he was Don Draper.
Mandy Lafond is a soon-to-be graduate of St. Lawrence University, studying philosophy with a minor in Asian studies. She’s currently writing a thesis on postmodernist film theory and Jean Baudrillard. In her spare time she likes philosophizing, playing with her pet rabbit and reading Wikipedia for fun.
The TV gods have spoken and, since I have a new computer, they've caused Mandy's computer to break (via a demonic vermin named Lucy, I wish I was lying). So I will be handling Mad Men solo this week and I'm glad to be doing so for one big reason, I have to say "Dark Shadows" was the weakest episode of this season so far.
So far this season has been gangbusters in my opinion, with formal experimentation ("Far Away Places") and spectacle ("Signal Thirty" and "A Little Kiss"). This week felt like it was neither of those things and a lot more scatter-shot in its plotting. I can handle a great number of story lines if they resonate thematically, but I didn't see any unifying theme this week. The title itself may be suggesting a certain darkness lurking below everything but I find that too vague to be very compelling. "Dark Shadows" is also interesting in the fact that it correlates with the release of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie of the same name, another great collaboration in their "Hey, Johnny, wanna get covered in white pancake makeup and contort your face? You do? Excellent!" series. The original television show debuted in the early summer of '66 so I highly doubt that that titling doesn't have a strong basis in anything but being connected to the box-office this past weekend. But enough about that, what happened?
We open with another installment of Betty's struggles with her weight and we get to follow her as she goes to a weight watchers meeting. While there, you can see that she has found a support community that is legitimately helping her maintain a healthy diet and some semblance of self esteem, a significant step for Betty. Of course, significant steps forward rarely last very long for characters on MM and while picking up the children at Don and Megan's apartment she catches site of the svelte Megan putting her shirt on, crumbling her reserves and inducing a direct to mouth whipped cream session followed by spitting it all out in the kitchen sink.
Concurrently with all this we see the partners, sans Lane, arriving at the office and Pete has exciting news. He had had a long conversation with a New York Times reporter doing a piece on up and coming ad agencies and the reporter seemed to be very interested in Pete himself. Roger quickly jokes about SCDP being "Sterling Campbell Draper Pryce", something Bert doesn't take amicably and he quickly requests Roger and his wife's help in landing Manischewitz kosher wines. Bert, of course, had no idea that Roger and Jane were en route to a divorce and when he's told he looks down at his watch and asks, "already?" (classic Bert). Roger asks Ginsberg to draft some ideas for him to use at the dinner in a scene so full of one liners that if I were to try and quote here the sheer number would overload my circuits. Of course, Roger ends up parting with all his cash yet again when Ginsberg demands a fee. Roger jokes to himself that he has "got to stop carrying so much cash". Roger still has to get Jane on board so he volunteers to buy her a new apartment if she will keep up appearances and come to the dinner, seeing as she's Jewish. This all culminates with a dinner where Roger charms the pants off the client while also watching Jane being hit on. Roger, wanting what he can't have, takes Jane back to her new apartment and recreates the memories she had hoped to avoid by moving out of their old apartment. The next morning she tells Roger all this and he seems to genuinely realize that what he had done was bad and he apologizes.
Pete, full of pride about the NYT article and his suspected large part in it, fantasizes about Beth Dawes showing up in his office with nothing but a coat on, saying she had seen him in the Times. Later, full of bile when he sees that the NYT didn't mention him or SCDP he calls Don who is dealing with his own problems (I'll get to those in a minute) and Don reprimands him for trying to place his failures on other people. On the train into work Howard won't shut up about avoiding his wife to stay with his girl in the city, Pete tells him that he can just stay in the city indefinitely and Pete will go to his house and fuck his wife. Howard laughs it off thinking Pete is joking and it angers Pete all the more.
The strongest storyline of this episode plays out with Sally. She is tasked with homework to create a family tree and goes to Megan for help, which Megan duly obliges. Once the kids get back to the Francis' house Betty glimpses a quick and loving note to Megan on the back of one of Bobby's drawings. Vindictively she decides to ask Sally why Megan hadn't told her about her father's first wife Anna? When Sally next goes to the Draper's she is acting acerbic and once Don is gone demands answers from Megan and becomes upset with her for lying about her father's first wife. Sally, pulling a classic Betty, asks Megan if she is "going to make herself cry?" Don, naturally, becomes very angry when he finds out that Betty is poisoning their daughter against his current marriage but Megan prevents him from giving Betty the satisfaction of getting a reaction out of him. The next morning he gives Sally a stern talking to and she seems to be settled with it. When she gets back to the Francis' she twists the knife in Betty by telling her how great it was to talk to Don and Megan about Anna. The final two scenes show Don and Megan preparing for Thanksgiving, as Don goes to open the door to let some air in Megan tells him about the killer smog outside the apartment (Betty Draper anyone?) and the scene fades into the Francis' thanksgiving with Betty making sure to tell the family that no one has anything better than they do, something she seems intent on ensuring becomes reality.
There is a lot more in this episode. Henry and Betty's midnight talk, Don and Ginsberg's seeming rivalry, and Megan's line reading's with her actress friend who gets a part on "Dark Shadows". But, I can't really get a read on these story-lines without more progression and I guess that is what bothered me about this episode. You can tell from my attempted summation how many different things were going on in this episode and that, while there may be a bit of thematic overlap, the themes seemed disparate. Also, the final smog/fade to Betty is a little on the nose.
What I can say worked is Sally's maturation into a young adult who has both her parent's talents for manipulation and evoking emotions. I think the more she is being exposed to the adult world (Roger and Megan's mother and the idea of marriages of convenience) the more we will see these traits emerge. Ginsberg and Roger are also dynamite playing off each other, I hope to see a lot more of these two together. But overall, this felt like it was all over the place and a step down from what has been an amazing season so far.