“This is a film about a man who escapes therapy but triggers his own intervention.” — Edgar Wright, speaking with Calum Marsh about his most recent film, The World’s End.
The World’s End grows in the same field as A Clockwork Orange and John Wyndham. It’s a serious work of socially conscious science fiction masquerading as a jolly British comedy – capable of inspiring belly laughter in one shot and existential terror in the next. Gary King is our hero, but he’s spinning out of control and into a self-destructive crisis. He cuts his wrists and drives while he’s fucked up and encourages his friends to join him in damaging behaviors. If The World’s End were not directed by Edgar Wright, one of the 2 or 3 greatest living directors of comedy, it would be a nightmare vision closer to Mike Leigh’s Naked.
Forget for a moment how funny this movie is and consider how seriously it takes itself. It is the work of experienced craftsmen – Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s screenplay doesn’t waste a word. Wright’s camera work is energetic, but mostly feels deliberate and controlled. Every prop and gag, no matter how insignificant, functions as a part of the carefully managed universe that is Newton-Haven. Out of Order signs and driver’s license marks are repurposed, creating a pointillist comedy that ultimately seems peripheral to the true aims of the filmmakers, which are twofold: 1) documenting the strange and terrifying realization that your hometown, which has always meant a great deal to you, can’t remember you at all and will continue to change and forget you ever existed; and 2) attempting to capture the experience of an addict/alcoholic’s crisis and recovery.
I think The World’s End manages to express the first metaphor perfectly in a stunning and hilarious second act. But I’d like to challenge the film’s presentation and development of Gary’s substance abuse. Respectably, The World’s End attempts to use addiction as more than a generic character detail and deserves some scrutiny. The Returning Home metaphor provides much of the film’s memorable moments – pub wars and synchronized marching to The Doors – but Gary’s addiction is the true structural core of the film. It is central to the three most important dramatic moments in the picture – the long opening monologue, the first appearance of the Blanks, and the events at The World’s End pub. His issues with addiction are vital to the film’s architecture, but I’m gonna be a buzzkill and say that the triumphal ending isn’t as dry as it wants to be.
The film begins and we are introduced to Gary through voiceover, as he leads us through the events of his Greatest Night Ever, an epic pub-crawl named The Golden Mile – 12 pubs and 12 pints. You can hear his excitement. We don’t know if the flashback images, flickering in brief, aged tones, are true documents or the fabric of Gary’s ballooned ego. We immediately learn that he is an asshole, that he is reckless, that he is cocky, and that he is charismatic. Edgar Wright dishes out character detail more efficiently than anyone.
But we eventually learn that Gary is telling this story, or, more accurately, “sharing” this story with an Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. Suddenly the “12 pubs – 12 pints” goal makes sense – referencing the 12-step path to recovery. It’s an effective gag, but the reveal is incredibly dark. Not only is Gary reckless, cocky, and an asshole, he is pathetic and clueless. Impressively, Wright sets up the entire ethos of his film in a single cut. But it unfortunately includes the film’s confused attitude towards substance abuse and recovery. The circle of Alcoholics Anonymous is presented as the supreme bummer. No one offers a helpful response or takes Gary’s inventory. Popular culture has traditionally condescended to the fellowship of AA and it’s hard to fault Wright and Pegg for it. They make it believable enough that Gary is doomed from the start – he’s in the room, but he’s not ready to recover. Indeed, a film about Gary and a crocodilian, septuagenarian, croaking sponsor would be something else entirely. But as we will see, the ideology of 12-step programs and substance abuse recovery becomes critical in the third act.
Each of the film’s three acts begins with Gary experiencing a crisis that is directly related to his substance abuse. While the first began with an AA circle, the second begins with a different fellowship – his four childhood friends sitting in the Cross Hands, their fourth pub of the night. If these pubs are each meant to correspond with a step in recovery, the fourth order of business is to create a Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory of Oneself, so it’s as good a point as any to stage the first of two major interventions and plunge the movie into a riotous second act. I love the way that Wright negotiates the introduction of new genre elements – pulling the trigger just when the narrative seems ready to self-destruct. Gary’s visit to the bathroom is a defensive gesture, his mates having just called him out on his addiction. Andy, clearly the one that Gary values the most, observes that they aren’t his friends, just his enablers. Gary deflects by saying “enabler” is a funny word. He continues to rationalize his substance abuse by lying about his mother’s death and alleging that his friends are jealous of his “freedom,” in one of many moments where Gary’s personal philosophy takes the form of recently-heard song lyrics. This is where Gary goes to the bathroom and the boys discover Newton-Haven’s secret in what is surely one of the best scenes of the year, action or otherwise.
Before I can continue, we need to talk about Andy. Nick Frost’s Andrew Knightley is the emotional core of the film. We hope that he can get through to Gary and we sympathize with his foolish devotion to him. Until the events at the Cross Hands, Andy has been the perfect adult – professional and mature. We learn that he has been sober for an impressive 16 years. In the first pub, he orders a glass of water, which, to Gary, is the most disappointing decision anyone could make. Andy makes an honorable statement about how ordering water at a pub takes more balls than ordering alcohol, but Gary doesn’t want to hear it. The film condescends to his decision as well – photographing the exhilarating crack and fizz of four poured beers juxtaposed against the limp drip of tap water. But after their epic Rumble in the Washroom, the fellas wonder what to do next. Gary unsurprisingly suggests they continue their crawl. All the others want to hop in a car and get away. The moment one of them points out that Andy is fit to drive because he’s a grownup and not currently halfway tanked, Andy gulps down five shots like it’s Popeye’s spinach. His relapse, after 16 years of sobriety, is not only unmotivated, it only comes about because the narrative requires them not to drive away. I’ll admit that there’s a certain Badass Factor at play here, but Andy has already revealed exceptional robot-bashing skills without lubrication — People’s Elbow and all. So, suddenly, the film seems to argue that heavy drinking is at once the great flaw of our hero and a fuel for victory. To take a line straight from Andy’s mouth – wouldn’t it take more balls to walk into a bar full of hostile robots and beat the shit out of them without liquid courage?
The impact of Andy’s relapse is mostly superficial during the excellent series of battles and adventures that make up the second act. But when it’s time for him to seriously confront Gary in yet another intervention, it’s as though he never even stepped off the wagon. In the final pub, the two of them have a tearful, desperate argument about whether or not Gary has more to live for than the Drink. Problem is, the words of wisdom are coming out of a mouth that just swallowed at least 8 drinks after 16 years of abstention. The World’s End takes place in a universe where certain genre elements alleviate some responsibility towards realism, but the filmmakers rely on the audience to have an emotional reaction to Gary’s alcoholism. In this moment, we do. But after Gary pulls the tap and triggers the elevator to humanity’s rock bottom, the film loses control of recovery as a theme.
Bill Nighy’s blinding, sarcastic God wastes no time in offering Gary exactly what he spent the entire film wanting – eternal youth. The opportunity to live forever inside of his own legend. To an addicted mind, this is the holy grail – no more tomorrows, no more hangovers, no more wondering what you’ll have to steal to trade for dope. But somehow, Gary denies it, ripping off his younger self’s head and punting it across the room. On the surface, it’s Gary’s final turning point – his moment of clarity. But look at it again. Isn’t it just an extension – an intensification – of his addictive personality? Faced with an authority figure, his instinct is to challenge it. Steps two and three are notoriously hard for recovering addicts because they require finding and trusting a higher power. In this final confrontation, Gary King literally stands on top of a table and defies what appears to be some kind of god offering guidance. It bellows, “You act out the same cycles of self-destruction again and again! You are the least civilized planet in the entire galaxy!” Gary screams back, now with Andy on his side, “It is our basic human right to be fuck ups!” Eventually, Bill Nighy’s disembodied voice gives up and leaves, admitting that nothing he can say will change their minds.
I’ll admit that I can identify with Mr. Nighy’s voice. In a situation where alcoholics are yelling about their god-given right to make their own decisions, it’s best to make an exit. Sure, the antagonist was defeated, but none of Gary’s personality issues were solved – his drinking, his ego, his need for control. In the final scene, Gary’s a legend – a portrait of the addicted ego. His face is shaved and he looks healthy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he chases that water with something from a flask hidden inside his coat.
It is a real pleasure to welcome Andrew Skelton, a good friend, to The Family. He is an experienced viewer and has recently decided to try his hand at analysis and criticism. He has slick style. I hope he inspires you to check out the films he recommends in this new series “Forgotten Gems,” meant to turn your eyes back toward many deserving, but overlooked films.
Cutter’s Way [Passer, 1981]
Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way presents an America void of justice and personal responsibility. Passer introduces us to his protagonist, Richard Bone (a young, suave, and oft-shirtless Jeff Bridges), as he trims his mustache and admires his own shirtless visage in a hotel mirror. Rather than engage in meaningful conversation, this self-centered, drifting womanizer leaves his latest sexual conquest to, “visit a sick friend.” Cutter, Bone’s “sick friend,” is first seen attempting to use racial epithets to start a bar fight. After departing this most recent example of Cutter’s self destructive ways, Bone’s car breaks down in a dark alley. While stalled on the side of the road, Bone observes a figure in what will later be identified as a woman’s body in a dumpster.
Bone soon recognizes the figure, which will distinguish Cutter’s Way from other neo-noirs of the 70s and 80s. Cutter’s Way isn’t concerned with who the murderer is, but rather with what Bone will do with his knowledge of that murderer. Bone favors order and status quo, whereas Cutter thrives in chaos. Bone’s primary moral quandary is whether to upend his luxurious lifestyle of sailing (a literal drifting) and sleeping with older women to pursue some form of justice. Cutter, a bitter war veteran, certainly typifies the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American on a search for justice, as he outlines in one of the film’s many well-written and emotional exchanges between these two protagonists. Has affluence and comfort overshadowed its desire for justice?
Jeffry Alan Fiskin’s smart screenplay, based on Newton Thornburg’s novel, presents three damaged characters; Bone, Cutter, and Cutter’s wife, Moe, who have all known each other long before Passer’s camera starts rolling. Their history together has most recently consisted of dealing with Cutter’s drunken rampages. Neither Bone nor Moe show surprise when Cutter drives home drunk one evening, bashing into a neighbor’s car and fence in the process. Cutter talks his way out of any legal fallout from this event by showing imitation remorse to a police officer. This avoidance of legal fallout is exemplifies Cutter’s ability to maintain his lifestyle, but more than that, an America devoid of ramifications.
Cutter’s Way presents a supremely American quandary between complacency and the pursuit of justice. Bone is promised a reliable full-time job by his employer, but to pursue the murderer would put that employment at risk. Typical of 70s neo noirs is the always prevalent undercurrent of paranoia. Robert Horton has already described this beautifully as part of Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project, but one shot of Bone sailing in front of a watchful oil derrick (the murderer Bone spotted was wealthy oil baron J.J. Cord) also captures this sensation. We can see Cutter’s Way marking America at a crossroads, one in which citizens must decide what they’re willing to risk to become heroes.
Pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty please check out Andrew on Twitter here. A really great feed.
Chinatown is often evaluated as a revival of the Noir Sensibility, released at a time when Hollywood was keen to revisit old forms and imbue them with a more overt surface darkness – something that’s always been done and will continue to be done, (look no further than recent superhero releases). But Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski do something very radical in Chinatown – they make a Noir in broad daylight. Very little of the action in Robert Towne’s Almost Perfect script takes place after sundown. But when the sun does sink, people sneak, people screw, and people die. Of course, that nighttime death was Polanski’s idea – he knew what kind of film he was dealing with. More than anything else, Chinatown is a masterful exercise in perception and trust. It uses our relationship with film and our tendency to believe everything that we see as a cruel weapon. Has a more subjective film ever been made? We latch onto Jake Gittes like a leech, experiencing every stupid decision he makes through his eyes. Indeed, Polanski and Towne have a thing for eyes and what they can do. Even more, they’re ready to expose what they can’t.
In keeping with Noir tradition, rooted in Sir Raymond Chandler, we aren’t allowed to experience anything our hero doesn’t. Of the 477 shots used in Chinatown, only 19 don’t involve Jake as a visible subject or come from his point of view. Still, he’s present for all 19. In addition, 153 of the shots are unarguably positioned to reference Jake’s subjective visual point of view. Except for those 19 shots, the only reason we don’t see Jake is because we are Jake. The runner up for the Character With Most POV Shots Award goes to Evelyn Mulwray, unsurprisingly, with a paltry 33, most coming in basic conversation with Jake.
But Polanski is too crafty to consider standard POV shots enough to render a subjective perspective. In at least 105 shots, he employs a simple visual tactic that gives the spectator access to both Jake’s subjective experience and a judgmental distance – he just follows Jake around. There aren’t many other movies where we spend almost a third of it watching the back of our hero’s head when they’re not in conversation. Polanski invites us to consume this new Los Angeles with Jake, but not always through his eyes. He does this to deliberately challenge us – to make us ask whether or not we want to follow this idiot. Jake Gittes was not born with the wit and charm of a Sam Spade or a Phillip Marlowe. He’s clumsy, vain, stupid, and “unlikable,” but Polanski gets us to stay with him by allowing us to simultaneously judge him and be caught up in his obsession. On many occasions, Polanski makes this explicit – beginning a shot in strict POV and later swinging out to reveal the subject.
This visual strategy asks the question Do You Trust What You See? Are we supposed to be allies with Jake or do we judge him? More than any other, this is the primary dilemma of Chinatown. What you see may not necessarily be true. The script even makes this immediately clear – Ida Sessions impersonates Evelyn Mulwray. We don’t know it was an impersonation until we see Evelyn for the first time. Polanski also challenges the way we see things by filtering them through another source, may it be binoculars, a mirror, or a lens.
Eyes, mistrusted as they are in Chinatown, are loaded with foreboding throughout the whole picture. Evelyn’s flawed iris. Noah’s busted glasses. Every car mirror is angled to reflect the driver’s eyes. And, of course, the final murder. The film begins with Curly looking at photographs that prove his wife is cheating on him. Today, this carries more resonance – is a photograph really proof anymore? – but we begin the film from someone else’s point of view and we end the film from someone else’s point of view.
During that iconic last scene, we are mostly detached from Jake’s point of view. We see the murder of Evelyn through his eyes – standing at an eerily long range, hearing the blare of that car horn – but that’s almost it. The shot where she is killed begins as a POV shot, but soon everyone walks into frame. Polanski wants us to wait behind and judge, to see what Jake and Noah and Evelyn have been reduced to. From that point, we assume the magnificent POV of Lou’s partner, who is handcuffed to Jake. It may seem strange, but there is no better character to inhabit for the last shot and those bitter last words. We finish the film literally chained to Jake in his repeated, seemingly infinite grief before something magical happens.
Chinatown’s camera work never crosses into expressionism. Establishing shots are at eye height. Motion is almost always executed with a handheld/barely-rigged setup. But in this final moment, the camera lifts into the sky, and we watch as police cars blow by Jake and his associates. Finally, Polanski resists forcing any perspective on us and we are free to judge. I will always find this to be one of the most spectacular visual decisions in the history of the medium specifically because, after a grueling exercise in morality, incest, Americana, and politics, Polanski seems to shrug and say, “Forget it, Folks. It’s a fucking movie.” In the end, he gives us God’s perspective.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. – But what if there’s no more beholder?
You can hear Mssr. Carax cackling through all of Holy Motors. It’s a movie made from the darkest, most hateful regions of the body, its vitriol constantly spilling out of the screen. Carax loudly and flamboyantly announces the death of Everything. Holy Motors is angry, feral, spiteful, and ridiculous. It spits in your face, steals your handkerchief and tells you to wipe it off with your sleeve. It’s a film of boiling attitude, snarling and not afraid to bite.
But isn’t hate just an anxious desire for love? As I look back, the vitriol of Holy Motors seems to turn itself inside out. There’s a lot of death happening in Holy Motors, but only the death of the Way Things Have Been. Carax isn’t inventing a new type of cinema, but he is trying to kill off an old one. After it condemns the history of film, it requires you to imagine the new future. Holy Motors begins with the most elaborate and darkly exhilarating joke in recent memory. A packed audience sits in front of a movie that we hear but do not see – they’re dead. But that’s not the joke. Carax wants us to hope that his movie will resurrect this fake audience. Of course it doesn’t. But it does require us to be alive. This opening gesture is the core of Holy Motors. With maniacal enthusiasm and profound spite, Carax cleans out the tradition of commercial moviemaking, clearing space for a cinema that celebrates and rewards those of us who are alive.
The film considers a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he makes his way around Paris in a limousine, fulfilling various engagements referred to as “appointments.” Oscar is constantly changing shape, but not through magic. Each time he emerges from the limo he is a different character, built from the costume and prosthetics warehouse that appears inside the car – an elegant homage to acting as well as a sturdy structural mechanism. Oscar has “appointments” as a father, a beggar woman, a motion-capture actor, an accordionist, etc. etc. It is said that Carax devised the episodic structure to suit the numerous ideas he’s had during his last dozen filmless years. Be sure, Holy Motors benefits from this. Carax’s work has had a tendency to slouch under ponderous, Romantic pressure. The format of Holy Motors allows his zany episodes to assault the audience at full density.
Some “appointments” make the light bouncing off the screen feel like lightning. In the most crowdpleasing segment, Oscar morphs into “Monsieur Merde,” a lurching, feral gnomish creature that climbs out of the sewers, bites off some fingers, and abducts Eva Mendes. All the while, a pretentious photographer blissfully documents the scene on old-fashioned film, shouting “SO WEIRD!!!” The episode succinctly demonstrates the growing cliché of High/Low juxtaposition and addresses our cultural obsession with beauty and ugliness with a cinematic wallop. One of the film’s most electric images is of Merde, naked and sporting a raging hard-on, lying down to sleep on Mendes’ lap as she sings “All the Pretty Little Horses” to him. Ugliness destroys and corrupts beauty, but ugliness is also just an invention of Oscar’s perpetual theater.
It’s fruitless to name every effective episode, since virtually all of them work on some level and most of them are genius miniatures. As I began to understand the structure of the film when watching, it first seemed like a cop-out. Breaking down the movie into short bursts of zaniness is one way to avoid making solid observations about anything. And it’s what makes the film palatable to lazy or ignorant filmgoers. All of this seemed like a concession to commercial dictum.
I was so fucking wrong. The episodic structure does allow the film to be more accessible, but Carax is so frightened of clarity and cliché that he blissfully rejects the need to unite the segments with anything but character and tone. In fact, he’s ballsy enough to give away the entire point of the film about halfway in, revealing that Oscar is a kind of actor working in a series of non-filmed films. Carax renders every bit of plot action meaningless as a tool for manipulating our narrative expectations. But that isn’t a part of the Newness that Holy Motors is celebrating, it’s a part of the Oldness that it’s killing. Carax obliterates any narrative stakes that he might have constructed in the interest of demonstrating their worthlessness. The best films teach us how to experience them. Here, Carax shows us a cinema that can free itself from traditional procedures and remain engaging as an experience.
After the stakes are eliminated, we are given three mercilessly devastating episodes. We know that there is no narrative purpose in them, but they still work emotionally. In fact, Carax demonstrates his hitherto unseen skill with designing bold emotional scenarios and executing them with concision. First, Oscar plays a father who picks his daughter up from a party. From there, we witness a delicate tug-of-war between the lying, insecure daughter and her loving but insensitive father. Later, Oscar changes into an old man who lies down to die and talks with his niece. It’s the best episode in the film, deeply sad and (ultimately) brilliantly comic. Death wafts over the entire movie – here, Carax is allowed to address it directly. At the end of the scene, one of the most mystical, liberating moments in [hyperbole alert] cinema history occurs. Oscar, apparently dead with his grieving niece and dog next to him, rises from the bed and quietly tiptoes out of the room. He asks his “niece” what her name is and tells her that he has another appointment. She says the same thing back to him. Again, by this time we understand the structure of the film and we know that Oscar is acting through life, fulfilling different roles and characters as they’re demanded. He has “died” a couple times already, including one very memorable gangster sequence. But that doesn’t stop a moment like this from succeeding.
If “pure cinema,” whatever it means, has ever existed, it’s in this moment. It addresses the emotional gravity and potential of the movies while elegantly addressing the fact that they’re make-believe. This is the resurrection that we’ve been waiting for. It’s Carax’s thematic answer to the dead audience. According to his argument, the audience could all be like Oscar, acting in a perpetual production. But the deathbed scene proves that there’s no such thing as death in the movies. There’s no such thing as coincidence, either. It’s all written and produced and edited and projected and consumed as art or entertainment or whatever. Cinema is dead but it’s also alive and been dead and resurrected and dying and doing jumping jacks.
The third episode of heartbreak involves Kylie Minogue. Admittedly, she sings a limping song, but it’s executed in such a thrilling, seamless way that I can’t care much. This scene was where I first acknowledged the Ghost of the Nouvelle Vague. Minogue sports a short, blonde wig and wistfully walks around an abandoned building with Oscar. Her character’s name is Jean – like Jean Seberg. The set looks like Last Year at Marienbad if Atilla the Hun designed it. Pieces of mannequin are stacked and piled on the floor, the ancient ruins of ancient style. The revolutions of Resnais and Godard and Varda are dusty, old, and strewn about the floor. Carax destroys and celebrates the Nouvelle Vague – just as they did to their ancestors. Like Oscar rising from his deathbed, Jean sheds her coat and wig before jumping to her death. She becomes a new character and we can expect that she rises and walks away from her suicide moments after we leave. The cinema is an immortal, impermanent universe – stylistically and otherwise.
Holy Motors ends like a prayer and the title of the film is explained. There is holiness in the way things move. A spirit in the machinery. A soul in the mechanical. Thing is, motors are made to repeat the same process over and over and over again. In a truly grand comedy, the final joke is that things will always stay the same. Dying and Living and Working and Eating and Loving and Begging and Watching and Dying Again and Cetera. Carax knows that revolutions (including his own) can only be so big. Holy Motors is a triumphant punch in the nuts. But nothing tells us we’re alive better than this kind of pain.
Continuing my breakdown of Mad Men‘s fifth season by examining the “Best Shot” and “Best Costume.” Go here to read about my pick for “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.”
Best Shot: The Long Dark Walk, “The Phantom”
“The Phantom” might be the weakest episode of Season 5. We all carry expectations into episodes and we’ve been conditioned to bring impossibly high standards to Mad Men finales. In the last two seasons, Weiner&co. have given us major surprises to tide us over — Season 3 ended with the covert construction of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Season 4 ended with the unexpected proposal. The writers of this show are not strangers to literary structure. They understand the importance of a climax and a denouement. Before Season 3 finished, we witnessed the incorporation of Kennedy’s assassination and Season 4 essentially climaxed with Don’s letter to the NY Times and Lucky Strike’s consolidation. We see the same treatment in Season 5. The story reached a fair apex with SCDP nabbing Jaguar and Lane killing himself in the aftermath. So how does one approach an episode like “The Phantom”? For most characters, it’s a coda. Peggy is pretty happy over at CGC, Joan is secure in her partnership, and Lane is dead. “The Phantom” wraps up Pete’s narrative when Trudy suggests that he get an apartment in the city. Really, the story belongs to Don and Megan.
In a sea of contenders for this category, Don’s walk away from Ms. Calvé wins by a mile.
Plenty of harsh words have been hurled at Megan during Season 5. Their partnership seemed to bend most of the viewership out of shape by the end of Season 4, probably because of the masterful fake-out that was Faye Miller. Megan’s beauty and grace suggest that she is precisely the kind of woman Don Draper would marry. However, Season 5 works hard to show us that she is a new type of woman — one that is able to follow her “dreams,” one that is willing to stand up to Don, one that won’t eat orange sherbet. Megan’s ability to be both perfect for Don and difficult for Don is exactly what makes “The Phantom” (and Season 5) functional. If you’re going to hate Megan Draper, hate her because she is constructed as a mate for Don, not because she’s “annoying.” One hope for Season 6 is that Megan becomes more of an individual and less predicated on the needs of Don’s outline.
Anyway, this shot manages to encapsulate Don and Megan’s entire season into one beautiful image. Don walks out into a long dark soundstage after getting Megan her first legitimate acting job. The previous scene shows us Don watching her test reel, falling in love with her all over again and persuading us to believe that he will be with her forever. Don is in love with a girl on a screen. In that scene, he faces her, smiling. In this scene, he walks away, face blank. He doesn’t look back.
The symbolism of this shot is overt, but its execution is haunting. We track along with Don, reminded that we are supposed to be seeing this world through his eyes. Instead of giving us a fixed point where we can watch this walk unfold, we stay with Don and experience the endless abyss with him. The shot goes on and on and on as he walks through the long darkness. We can’t really see his face and it isn’t too important. What’s happening on the stage isn’t very important, either. What is important is the distance. Not only is Matt Weiner showing us how far apart these two characters are becoming, he’s engaging us in the widening process. By rendering the action of both characters neutral, we are left to experience the increasing gap between them.
We also hear the beginning of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” as Don begins walking away. Weiner said that he’s been waiting to use this song for a long time because it so perfectly describes this world and these characters. In a story that clutches so tightly to human nature, it’s hard to disagree. The song resonates particularly well within the Draper marriage. They’ve spent the entire season reconciling the worlds of Work and Home — they are trying to make them into two different lives.
“The Phantom” lacks subtlety, which is its greatest flaw in comparison to an uncompromising season. The refusal to acknowledge Lane’s death is a remarkably truthful gesture on the page, but doesn’t communicate well on the screen. Adam’s suggestion that “Something’s rotten, but it isn’t your tooth,” is worth a thousand eye-rolls. Pete’s confession to a wiped-out Beth reads as a lazy writers-room concession. In a way, this shot is just as obvious — ripping your attention away from both characters and encouraging a clear conclusion. But it’s an example of what any good art will do well — communicate an emotion or ideology through creative gesture. We see Don saunter out into space, leaving his wife behind. She’s engulfed in the vibrant colors of advertising, of creativity, of Don’s world, but he moves on. Unsurprisingly, that black void quickly cuts to a deep, smoky bar where a woman from a new age asks if Don is alone. It’s a line that, like the rest of the episode, might be too overt. But Mad Men is all about getting what you wish for and wondering what it means. The Draper household is in great shape by the end of Season 5 — right?
Best Costume: Sally Draper, “At the Codfish Ball”
Janie Bryant’s costume work will surely be recognized as a turning point in expectations for period fidelity in media.Her designs have inspired a very obvious shift in contemporary fashion, men now favoring slim suits and thin ties and tight hair, women embracing the loud, expressionistic colors of the 1960’s.
Of all the magnificent costumes this season, Sally Draper’s new dress takes the cake. Janie Bryant’s marriage of clothing and content has no match in contemporary television. Tasked with the challenge of Sally Draper’s burgeoning adolescence, she delivered a dynamite outfit.
“At the Codfish Ball” is an episode that we basically experience through Sally’s perspective. Her interaction with Roger feels as pleasant as it does because we think that he’s talking to us, giving us the tour of this world. Whether you like fish or not, you cringe when she receives her meal. And when the waiter finally comes to ask if she’s done with her Shirley Temple, you nod along with her. Her false adulthood is a universal experience — everyone knows what that feels like. Ultimately, she rejects it, saying that the city is “dirty.” Sally’s embodiment of the confusing netherworld between childhood and adulthood is remarkable. She’s postured as a fractured soul, intelligent but damaged by the immaturity of her parents. The enjoyment we’ve previously received from her character comes from seeing her try to navigate the adult world with a childish conscience. But, in Season 5, her arc is one that places her among the adults.
When the series is finished, I wonder if we won’t look at Sally and see the greatest change of all. Of course, we are watching Kiernan Shipka pass into adolescence as well. Sally’s ultimate destination is too hard to tell. Imagining her as a flower child or a protester seems too simple for Mad Men‘s agenda. Where do you think Sally ends up?
The fact that Mad Men is not watched and loved by virtually every person on Earth fills me with deep emotional and philosophical turbulence. The show is the greatest weapon for those who are keen to suggest that television is usurping cinema as the Great Populist Art. It’s so good that Homeland’s Emmy sweep this year was basically a chance for the Academy to tell Matt Weiner that it’s polite to share. And how thrilling is it, as a viewer, to know that we live in a time when something like Mad Men is possible? At the end of the line, we’ll have a 91-hour piece of art. If it is true that Mad Men episodes are better than most contemporary cinema, what kind of treasure chest do we have in front of us?
Season Five was recently released on DVD and I did the customary rewatch and explored the extra features and commentary tracks. Not that his ego needs any more prodding, but Weiner does give some of the most illuminating commentary I’ve ever heard. The “recap” culture surrounding Mad Men and so many other current television shows can make it difficult to maintain perspective on a program’s long-term existence. A weekly chapter will end and the world feasts on the details of that episode, often forgetting that we’re dealing with a unique type of narrative – one that can stretch across an entire decade or an entire lifetime with a level of nuance that’s simply impossible in other forms. Weekly recapitulation, as a form, is a strong tool that ultimately fails when trying to contextualize an entire season. So, in the interest of evaluating Mad Men’s most recent season, I want to look at some highlights and see how this installment fits in the full history of the show.
In lieu of a long rambling post, I’m cutting it up into specific categories. Today, I’m doing “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.” Later this week, we’ll have highlights for Scene, Shot, Montage, Costume, Set, Sterling-ism, and more! Let me know your picks in the comments. And don’t forget to argue with mine.
BEST EPISODE: “Signal 30”
Some will suggest that the best episode of Season 5 is a more flamboyant one – “The Other Woman,” which served as the climax of the season or “Far Away Places,” which boasts Mad Men’s most daring structural experiment. But it is “Signal 30,” an episode of brave psychological acrobatics, that best displays what Mad Men is capable of accomplishing.
The story of “Signal 30” belongs to Pete Campbell. Pete’s emotional collapse during Season 5 is possibly even more affecting than Lane’s suicide. He’s a unique creature in this world, but one that we all know and understand. A man who has worked so hard for stability and wealth and power that he doesn’t know what to make of it when he gets there. Like all of us, Pete is a child stepping into situations understood to be “adult.” He and Peggy are our most accommodating guides through the 1960’s, seated somewhere in the nebulous land between youth and old age. They’re neither the agents of change nor the agents of stasis. If you watch closely, you’ll see Pete’s hairline recede noticeably from “A Little Kiss” to “The Phantom.”
“Signal 30” begins with Pete laughing at the maudlin, overwrought driver’s-ed horror film. Removed from the anxiety, he’s able to find humor in it. Then we’re back at his one-story ranch house in the country and the faucet goes drip drip drip. He “fixes” it by cranking the pressure up so high that the leak stops but the faucet waits to explode. Season 5 is partially about how these characters greet permanent problems with temporary solutions – infidelity, LSD, food, and so on. Of course, some folks, like Lane and Joan, do find a way to address major issues and are dramatically changed because of it.
The episode continues, making us privy to Ken’s burgeoning career as a fiction writer. We are allowed into Pete’s home with the Drapers and the Cosgroves and, underneath the easy, rustic posture of Pete’s presentation, we recognize a storm. Mad Men has always been a show about reconciling the worlds of Work and Home. This conflict is made obvious in the Draper household, but Pete represents the core of this war in Season 5. His inability to find peace between the two manifests itself in his physical difficulty with the commute. Pete’s story for the season ultimately resolves when Trudy relinquishes and suggests that he get an apartment in the city. This is more than just a dramatic opportunity for future plot development; it’s a symbol of his separation. Trudy, unknowingly, is ending their marriage. Pete spent all of Season 5 in between Work and Home, finding Beth in the same half-world, but Work won in the end.
Later in the episode, Don, Roger, and Pete take a Jaguar representative to a whorehouse. Pete’s experience is initiated by a series of fantasies where he finally submits to being called a king. In “Commissions & Fees,” Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” This relentless quest for power and control over life and, as a result, others is just as present in Pete’s struggle between Work and Home. “Signal 30”’s climax is, of course, the cathartic bare-knuckle contest between Pete and Lane – new and old, American and British. However, Mad Men doesn’t always find fulfillment by satisfying the audience and uses Pete’s humiliation to motivate a dynamite scene between him and Don in the elevator. Earlier, Pete assumed that Don was judging him for his sexual indulgence and tells him, “I have everything.”
As they stand in the elevator, Pete’s face swollen with shame, he says two things that define his character for the season. First, he remarks that “this is an office, we’re supposed to be friends.” The episode is the first in a series to take that idea to task – just how wide is that gulf between Work and Home? But then Pete gets desperate and says, “I have nothing,” mirroring his empty confidence from earlier.
“Signal 30” has one of the great endings of the Season and of the Series, really. Ken, who has been told not to write fiction, initiates a new pen name by writing a story called “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” referring to Pete’s enormous stereo. We see Pete back in driver’s-ed, this time watching his desires walk by without noticing. The drip drip drip returns, this time only in his imagination. Something much bigger needs to be fixed.
“Signal 30” is a sort of climax in Pete’s development throughout the entire series. We can easily recall the spunky turd from the pilot and the blackmailing tool from Season 3. But it’s Pete’s inability to change himself that defines him. Of course, he might not even believe that he needs to change, but rather expects the world around him to change. This episode is a rare example of Mad Men committing to major, irreversible character evolution so early in a season. “The Other Woman” can be seen as doing the same thing for Joan, but “Signal 30” carries a more urgent structure, less fascinated with itself and more prone to self-discovery.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Christina Hendricks in “The Other Woman”
After “The Other Woman” aired, there were a few commentators who contended that Joan “wouldn’t really do that.” I still find that sentiment to be embarrassing for those who made it. “The Other Woman” isn’t perfect structurally, but in terms of carefully being led through a series of difficult character decisions and arriving at a satisfying conclusion, it’s a masterpiece. And it wouldn’t be half of what it is without Christina Hendricks. She gives the smartest performance of the year.
Hendricks understood what was going on. She knew that this proposition was a major storytelling risk. Instead of heightening the emotion, she chokes it back and lives with it. Joan’s decision is cold and cynical. She uses the tool that probably got her a job in the first place to secure her own future and the health of her son. The writers designed a scenario where a moment can pay the price for eternity – it’s almost hard to imagine Joan rejecting the offer. The only thing Joan needs to do is survive that singular experience and she is given everything she needs.
Hendricks plays the critical moment – that graceful intercutting between the Jaguar pitch and her exploitation – with heartbreaking gravity.
Again, imagine how easily these moments could be overplayed. The moment where Hendricks grabs his hand and opens her own dress is one of crushing resignation. My sadness doesn’t come from Joan’s choice to sell herself, it comes from the knowledge that this is her only way to get where she wants to go. This is where Mad Men excels as social history/social criticism. It allows us to invest ourselves in these personalities and then subjects them to period realities. Sometimes the outcome is funny, curious, or in this case, awful.
“The Other Woman” is the climax of the season as well as the climax for Joan’s character in the series thus far. Hendricks plays out an event with permanent consequences as quietly as possible. It’s an unforgettable episode and one that will continue to reinforce Joan’s motivations and philosophy for the rest of the series.