Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy reporter Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: It's interesting to me that both of you highlight connections tentatively formed within these first three episodes (though we haven't seen Peggy's new potential flame again), because the more I look at them, the more they seem to be about disconnection, the way that incorporation into the McCann hive mind has taken a formerly functional workplace family and turned it against itself.
Over at Indiewire, Sam Adams has noticed this, too, pointing out that Mad Men has ended the last four episodes with variations on the same shot — Don, alone and isolated, having a quiet moment of self-reflection. (Notably, the last episode to not end this way ended with Don having dinner with Pete and Peggy at the Burger Chef.)
So we're clearly meant to be thinking about this sense of isolation. But I'd argue it runs even deeper than that. At first I thought I was reading too much into things, but every week when I make screencaps for the episodes, I find it incredibly hard to find shots that contain more than one person's face in them, the better to establish the two characters in relation to each other.
Take, for instance, the scene in this week's episode where Don fires Mathis. It starts out with Meredith in the room with the two of them. When she leaves, director Jennifer Getzinger cuts out to a wide shot showing her leave the room.
After that, we don't see Don and Mathis in the same shot ever again. Some of this is just a directorial way to underline what's happening in the story — Don is pushing Mathis out of the family and already has in some ways. But the effect of it is downright eerie. You feel, subconsciously, as if these two people are in two different places entirely.
And Getzinger (and the directors of the two prior episodes) keeps doing this, especially in scenes with Don. When he gives Peggy her performance review, we get a couple of perfunctory shots of her sitting down across from him, and then we're into a long series of shots of the two of them, but never together in the same frame. It's almost as if Getzinger is suggesting Don can appreciate these relationships in the abstract, but not in actuality.
The same even goes for Don's daughter. In some ways, this back half of the season has been visually playing off motifs from the first half of the season, and the concluding scene with Sally in this episode riffs off the scene where she tells her father she loves him in "A Day's Work," the season's second episode. In that episode, director Michael Uppendahl cuts to close-ups, to emphasize the intimacy of the moment between the two. (And this after a long sequence where Uppendahl has both characters' faces in frame at the same time.)
But we don't get anything similar in "The Forecast." Instead, Sally is once again held at arm's length, and it's rare for her face to occupy the same frame as her father's face, which would establish a connection.
In fact, the people that Don's establishing connections with in this episode tend to be all the wrong people — like teenage girls.
That's something the story has already told us, but it's also something the filmmaking underlines three or four times. Don is perpetually going off the rails, and if those final shots of him seeming struck by something are any indication, he knows it, too. But he's also not sure what to do about it. Peggy used to give him the answer, but she doesn't any more. Sally has no use for him. Even Roger's no longer valuable to pull him deeper into hedonism. Don is all alone.
The first three episodes of this half-season of Mad Men might not be as viscerally satisfying as some of the series' finest hours, but the more I pick at them, the more I think they're cueing us up for some sort of revelation. Look at that episode title again — "The Forecast." Don keeps talking about how things will get better in this episode. They have to get better. That's how it works, right?
Look back, I think, to Peggy's Burger Chef pitch in "Waterloo." It's rightly seen as a seismic moment for the season, and it's all about connection, in the wake of a moon landing that brought everyone together. Now, however, everyone is scattered, and it's heartbreaking.
There's a line from a song by Mates of State that I've always liked, which goes, "Everything's gonna get lighter/ even if it never gets better." Sometimes, that's what life on Earth is. You're pinned here by gravity, forced to watch the unending roll of the planet that brings new light with every new morning. But the rise of the sun doesn't always bring something better. Sometimes it just reaffirms that you're in the grave you dug for yourself long ago.
Is this read too gloomy, Libby? I buy you and Amanda's thoughts that Peggy and Joan (and maybe even Sally) are going to make it out of here alive — in a spiritual sense — but I'm starting to feel every single man on the show is doomed. Are there exceptions? Maybe Ted?
Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts from Libby.
Next: Libby on the show as a post-apocalyptic one