Tuesday, November 24, 2009

This season, I'm thankful for...

In a few days, many of us will gather around a table full of high-fat, high-carb goodies, argue with our loved ones, then take about five minutes to discuss what we're thankful for.
Well, not me. I'm taking time right now to list a few things in the TV landscape I'm thankful for. After all, TV this season has given me much cause for gratitude. A few strong new shows, some great performances, and an excellent episode or two (or three. or four.)
Below is my list of some things in TV land I'll give thanks for this year.
* "The Good Wife": Confession -- I'm one of, like, eight people on earth who doesn't regularly watch "The Mentalist," "NCIS," or any of the "CSIs." CBS dramas are solid and dependable, but a bit predictable for my taste. But I love the network's freshman series "The Good Wife," about a politician's wife whose life is torn apart by a sex scandal. As scorned wife Alicia Florrick, Julianna Marguiles is sympathetic, complicated and unforgettable.
* Sue Sylvester on "Glee": Yes, this Fox musical comedy has its clumsy, pedestrian moments, but none of them come from the ever-reliable Jane Lynch as hilariously wicked cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. That's partly due to the dialogue ("You think this is hard? Try auditioning for 'Baywatch' and being told they're going in a different direction. THAT was hard!"), and partly due to Lynch's lemon-tart delivery. As a bonus, we learned in the "Wheels" episode that the prickly Sue has a bigger heart than we ever imagined. It was a risk to show this titan of a character tenderly reading to her developmentally disabled sister -- but the fact that Sue has an actual human soul makes me love her even more.
* Roger Sterling's one liners: "Don't act like a stranger. We've got tea."
"Are you kidding?" "Yes. Yes we are. Happy Birthday."
"Most interest that girl's ever had in a book depository."
And those are just from the season finale. Can you imagine what a verbal smackdown between Sue Sylvester and Roger Sterling would be like? Heaven. That's what it would be like.
* The fact that Hilary Duff's arc on "Gossip Girl" is apparently over
* The fact that Keith Carradine is being employed by as many TV shows as humanly possible
* The "Phoenix" episode of "Breaking Bad": This penultimate episode of AMC's brutal drama was one of the most affecting hours of the year as Walter White (the utterly amazing Bryan Cranston) abandoned what little soul he had left, and let his business partner's junkie girlfriend die. It was ugly, horrifying and tough to watch. It was also -- in a TV landscape now devoid of "The Sopranos," "The Shield," and "The Wire" -- arguably the most powerful TV moment of the year.
* Tim Riggins, Eric Northman, Don Draper and Sawyer: Because, let's face it -- looks do matter. The fact that these hot fellas are also fascinating characters is really just a bonus.
* Jack Donaghy's plea for directions on the subway: Because I've ridden a lot of subways, and that was spot on.
* The fact that "Dollhouse" aired at all: Look, I'm bummed we won't get a third season of Fox's smart, compelling drama. But shouldn't we be glad that Fox even gave a show like this two seasons?
* John Lithgow tearing it up on "Dexter": Whether you love this season or hate it, you've gotta admit that Lithgow is killin' it as the Trinity character. Perhaps one of the creepiest characters on TV. Ever.
* And, last but not least, I'm thankful for this. Because who wouldn't be?
Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Giving thanks for "Dexter"


I don't usually do a recap of Showtime's "Dexter," but tonight's episode was so creepy, intense and downright terrific, I was compelled to write something.
On tonight's episode, "Hungry Man," we got quite a bit more insight into this season's Big Bad, Trinity (played marvelously by that master of the icky, John Lithgow). Like Lyla in season two and Miguel in season three, Trinity, aka Arthur Mitchell, represented an ideal for Dexter. But whereas Lyla seemingly represented the perfect mate (someone who not only accepted, but was turned on by, Dexter's darkness) and Miguel represented the ideal friend, Arthur represented Dexter's ideal for himself. Like Dexter, Arthur is a father and husband. But, unlike Dexter, Arthur seemed affectionate to and connected with his family. Though Dexter knows he has to kill Trinity/Arthur, he is fascinated by the older, more experienced killer. Dexter sees Trinity as a mentor, a teacher.
Like his other ideals, Arthur was bound to disappoint Dexter, but I don't think Dexter has ever seen an idol fall quite so hard. For tonight, Dexter learned that Arthur is not the man he thinks he is. He isn't hiding his monstrosity from his family. They know exactly who he is -- well, they don't know he's a serial killer. But they know he's a violent, horrible man who physically and emotionally abuses them all. Dexter's misguided attempt to protect the Mitchells from Arthur by attending their Thanksgiving meal was both darkly comic and gut-wrenchingly creepy. They all respond to his presence in different ways. Sally, who has, presumably, been exposed to Arthur's evil the longest, is completely cowed by her husband, and follows his lead in his acceptance of Dexter. Jonah sees Dexter as a protector, the buffer that will keep dear old dad "on his best" during the holiday. And Becca sees Dexter as a means of escape, which she's willing to pay for with her body.
Dexter's ever-building terror at what Arthur's family is really like climaxes at the Thanksgiving table, when Arthur attacks Jonah and Dexter attacks Arthur.
Dexter has, in effect, blown his cover. It will be harder for him to kill Trinity now. But he can't control his disdain and disillusionment.
Of course, as Harry points out, Dexter could become Arthur in few years. Indeed, tonight we saw cracks in Dexter's family, as Elliot made a play for Rita, assuming that she's lonely and vulnerable.
Could Dexter's perfect life implode as easily as Arthur's has? It's an interesting question.
Dexter clearly seems more human and self-aware than Trinity. After all, even before meeting Trinity, Dexter had real feelings for his adopted sister, Debra, and for his wife and family. Even Dexter's crimes operate at a higher moral level than Trinity's, targeting criminals as opposed to innocent, random people who fit a certain pattern.
It's possible that Dexter has already achieved a deeper level of humanity than Arthur has. But who knows the toll time will take?
It would have been enough if this episode only gave us the portrait of Arthur's deranged family and its effect on Dexter. But we got another whammy tonight -- we learned that Christine, Joe Quinn's seemingly disposable love interest, is actually Trinity's daughter! And, she probably shot Debra and Lundy! Wow. I totally didn't see that coming. I'm glad that the Christing/Quinn storyline is actually going somewhere interesting, and relevant to the larger concept of the season. The LaGuerta/Angel storyline continues to be filler, but that's all right. There was enough good stuff in this episode to compensate. There are only three more episodes left and, while I don't see how they can drag the Trinity storyline out that long, I am eager to see where this is going.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oh and by the way...

Also, from the "I'm sure I'm absolutely the last person to tell you this" files, ABC has announced the premiere date of the final season of "Lost" -- it's Feb. 2, at 9 p.m. That's right. Feb. 2. Groundhog Day. Sigh. If only this meant we were getting a guest shot from Bill Murray. Also, the premiere date is a Tuesday, meaning "Lost" is shifted from its regular Wednesday night slot. You can read all about the new season and time slot here in Maureen Ryan's "The Watcher" column.

Top 10 shows of the 2000s: I want your vote!

The end of the year is when TV geeks like myself start compiling lists of the best shows of the year. But this year is special. The end of this year also marks the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
With that in mind, I'm compiling a list not only of the 10 best shows of 2009, but the 10 best shows of the 2000s. Sure, I have my favorites ("The Wire," "The Shield," "Lost"), but I also want to hear from you.
What shows made this decade special for you? When the decade ends, what series will stick in your head as standouts?
I want to know!
So please, feel free to put your suggestions below -- or, e-mail me personally at iscreenyouscreen@gmail.com (you can also use the "Click here to e-mail me" feature on the "contact iscreen" link on the right).
I want to hear from you!

"Life on Mars, Series 2" released on DVD

Oh America -- how could you?
How could you take a British series that ended on such a dark, strange, emotionally powerfull note and completely neuter it? Don't get me wrong -- our version of the limited run British series "Life on Mars" was pretty solid, with Jason O'Mara ably taking over for John Simm as Sam Tyler, a cop who wakes up in 1973 after getting hit by a car. In fact, some aspects of the American version were even better than the British version. For example, I much prefer Michael Imperioli's performance as surly 70s cop Ray to that of Dean Andrews in the original.
But that ending! America, why did you change the ending?
Well, fear not, British "Life on Mars" fans. The second season of the show comes out on DVD on Tuesday, and you can enjoy the original in all its dark, twisted glory. The DVD also includes a series of featurettes, including an entertaining documentary on the making of an animated sequence featured in one episode. There's also a very insightful featurette on the show's stunning ending, featuring interviews with the writers, directors and actors (note -- it's also kind of a kick to see everyone in contemporary dress in these documentaries).
But, additional features aside, the show itself is the star here. This "Life on Mars" is both vastly entertaining and a thought-provoking meditation on life, death, friendship and love. It's good stuff. Accept no substitutes.
"Life on Mars, Series 2" will be released on DVD on Tuesday. Season one is already available. Also, if you'd like to hear a great interview with Philip Glenister, who played Gene Hunt on the series, click here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jack&Liz = Don&Peggy: Think about it

When "30 Rock" debuted, lots of people were comparing the relationship between independent but vulnerable career gal Liz Lemon and her imperious but good-hearted boss Jack Donaghy to classic TV pair Mary Richards and Lou Grant.
But a few years have passed, and another show has emerging with a core relationship that's eerily similar to that of Jack and Liz: "Mad Men." Seriously -- aren't "Mad Men" protagonist Don Draper and his foil/protegee Peggy sort of the dramatic version of Jack and Liz?
On both shows, the male character considers himself a guide to the female, and she considers him a mentor who is more experienced in the ways of the world than she. Both pairs have an odd -- but platonic -- bond that unites them, and makes them each other's touchstone in times of trouble. Don shepherds Peggy through the aftermath of her unplanned pregnancy. Jack is there for Liz when she learns that her unplanned pregnancy isn't a pregnancy at all, but a reaction to some cheap cheese curls.
Peggy picks Don up in the middle of the night after he gets in an accident with an extramarital paramour. Liz once picked Jack up from night court.
Of course, neither pair is immune to conflict. This week, on both shows, we saw both pairs reach a possible turning point in their relationship with the man. In this week's "30 Rock" episode (titled "The Problem Solvers"), we saw Liz wrestling with something that Peggy struggled with a lot this season on "Mad Men" -- Liz wanted to be independent, and act like an adult businesswoman, while Jack wanted to keep her under his thumb. When Jack proposes that Liz have her own talk show, she agrees. But her friends tell her she should shop around before accepting Jack's offer. She does, and Jack isn't happy, freezing her out and threatening to replace her with Padma Lakshmi ("Then who will host 'Top Chef?'" Liz wails.) Liz is angry that Jack doesn't respect her enough to let her be independent. Jack is hurt that Liz doesn't trust him. In the end, they realize that they're happier together than apart, and that they do really care about/trust each other.
In a much more emotional episode, the season finale of "Mad Men" had Peggy finally standing up to Don, refusing to follow him on his new venture "like a nervous poodle," because she feels Don doesn't respect her. But, like Jack, Don realizes he needs Peggy, and wants to be a positive force in her life. He tells her he needs her for his new venture and that, if she says no, he'll spend the rest of his life trying to hire her. Yes, it's more of a tear-jerker than Liz and Jack reuniting in Rockefeller Plaza, but you get my point.
Watching the "Mad Men" finale and "The Problem Solvers" just days apart, it's hard to ignore the similarities.
Of course, there is one major difference: In no language does "Peggy Olson" translate into "Lesbian YellowSourFruit."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shall it go now?: "Dollhouse" reportedly canceled

As you may have heard, Fox has reportedly opted not to renew its fine, but abysmally rated, drama "Dollhouse" for a third season. The series will finish out the 13 episodes of its second season, with the last episode reportedly slated to air Jan. 22 (according to the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan).
Well, it's not a tremendous shock, is it? Everyone and his mother has been reporting how crummy the show's ratings are, and Fox pulled the series off the air for November sweeps (it returns Dec. 4). But it's a shame nonetheless, because "Dollhouse" has really hit its stride creatively this season.
"Dollhouse," as fans know, is about a company that provides "dolls" (human beings imprinted with customized personalities) to wealthy clients for everything from sexual encounters to philanthropic pursuits. One "doll," called Echo (Eliza Dushku), is slowly discovering traces of her true identity, and the Dollhouse itself is under attack from a crusading politician. That's a pretty basic description of what's come to be a very a complex show.
Though the series, created by "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" mastermind Joss Whedon, started slow, it's matured into one of the most fascinating shows on TV. The last episode aired before the pre-sweeps yanking was the excellent "Belonging," which showed us how Echo's fellow doll Sierra (Dichen Lachman)came to the Dollhouse. It was everything good TV should be -- emotional, exciting and quietly devastating. If the remainder of the season's episodes are anywhere near as good, well, I'll just be grateful that Fox has agreed to air the whole second season.
But I'll miss it. A lot.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why can't I break up with "Gossip Girl"?

So can we all agree that "Gossip Girl" kind of bites this season? I mean, is it just me, or has nearly every single storyline been a rehash of something that's happened before. We've had a Serena-Blair falling out, which happens at least once a season. We've had Jenny become so obsessed with being Queen that she loses herself and becomes an insufferable bitch (hello, season one!). We've had Serena in inappropriate hook-ups; Dan struggling with a girlfriend whose social status outpaces his own; the Humphreys struggling with their change in social status. Blah, blah, blah. Snore, snore, snore.
Even last night's "controversial" threesome was a giant snooze, consisting of little more than a few smooches and some morning-after spooning. Yes, the three-way in question did include former teen queen Hilary Duff, so it was probably supposed to be scandalous, but it did nothing for me.
In fact, with the exception of Ed Westwick's still-awesome performance as Chuck Bass, this season has done much for me at all.
And yet...I'm sticking with it. I honestly have no idea why. I can see where the stories are headed ("Vanessa struggles with her feelings for Dan -- again!" "Jenny suffers public humiliation as a result of her haughtiness -- again!" "Serena acts like a skank -- again!) and I don't know if I can sit through it.
Yet I just can't delete it from my DVR. I don't know what it is. I feel like I have to see where this is going, even though I kind of know where it's going. It's this masochistic thing where I feel like I can't possibly give the show up until every single glimmer of enjoyment is gone. I'm close, but I'm not there yet.
There are still moments where "Gossip Girl" manages not to stink, like when Vanessa admitted she'd never been in a threesome before -- even though no one actually ASKED whether she'd been in a threesome before. Or Serena and Blair's admittedly sweet reconciliation in the elevator. But the show is losing me.
And if it keeps up the repetitive stories, I could be gone for good.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Mad Men" season finale recap: "Shut the Door. Have a Seat."

WARNING: Below is a recap of the third season finale of "Mad Men." Read no further if you've not seen it.
Peggy: What if I say no? You'll never speak to me again.
Don: No -- I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.

Roger: How long you think it'll take for us to be in a place like this again?
Don: I never saw myself in a place like this.

Don to Betty: I hope you get what you've always wanted.

Wow. Just wow. With so many changes -- so many old chapters closed and new chapters opened -- the third season finale of "Mad Men" felt kind of like a series finale, didn't it? I mean, I know the show's been picked up for a fourth season, but there was just such a sense of closure to this episode, I almost would be OK if this were the last we saw of Don, Peggy and the rest of the gang.
In this episode, appropriately titled "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," we saw Don and Betty finally (I think) put their ailing marriage out of its misery. We saw Don, Bert, Roger, Lane and a chosen few others bail the sinking ship of Sterling Cooper to create their own business. We saw Joan cleverly being drawn back into the fold. And we saw Don finally giving the two women in his life what they wanted: he sets Betty free, and lets Peggy know how truly valuable she is.
I'm not really sure where the show will go from here but, much like the redistricting storyline on "Friday Night Lights," I feel the creation of Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce will help reinvigorate an already solid show, bringing in new problems and new possibilities.
I know it's Matthew Weiner's inclination to jump his story ahead at least a few months and at most a few years every season, but I hope season four doesn't take place too long after the events of this episode. I really want to see the details of what happened after that giddy first day of working out of The Pierre, don't you? If season four starts with everything hunky dory all of a sudden (or with the band already broken up and seeking new jobs after their little venture's collapse), I'll be vastly disappointed. But I don't think that will happen, do you?
Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on the season three finale of "Mad Men."
* Well, let's begin from the beginning, shall we? How devastating is it that Don had to find out about PPL's sale from Connie, his onetime client and father figure? I have to wonder, was Don right about Connie? Was the entrepreneur playing with Don to see how he'd hold up? Was he a sadistic jerk? Or can we take his actions at face value? Perhaps he did reject Don's campaign because he genuinely felt Don failed to listen to him. And perhaps he was trying to be kind by tipping Don off about PPL. After all, that advance knowledge does give Don a running start at formulating a new company. The show lets Connie remain a cipher. And kudos to Weiner and co. for managing to not only make a fictional character out of a real life, well known person, but for also making him so surprising, complex and enigmatic. Much like the venture in this episode, the storyline was a gamble. Hopefully, Don's gamble will pay off as well as Weiner's has.
* OK, let's talk about the whole Betty-Don breakup storyline. When the show begins, Don is sleeping in Gene's room in the attic, but still living at home. Though Betty is resolute in her desire to leave him, Don keeps refusing to admit the relationship is over. Even after his blow-up upon learning about Henry (from Roger of all people - this really was Don's week for getting bad news from distressing sources), Don tells his children that the split from Betty is "only temporary." By episode's end, Don has finally decided to let Betty go. Maybe the catharsis of leaving Sterling Cooper before it turned into a place he hated opened Don's eyes. Perhaps it helped him see that, just like him, Betty didn't want to go down with the ship. She was sick of just letting her life happen to her. She needed a fresh start as badly as he did. So, are Betty and Don really done? I hope so. They've been almost splitting up for three seasons now. If the show keeps teasing a break-up, then shoving them back together again, it will just be frustrating. I have a feeling that the show will try to keep Betty on somehow, but in what capacity? It will be interesting to see.
* By the way, how devastating was it to see Don light into Betty about Henry Francis? I had such a mix of emotions during that scene. It was kind of a relief to see Don finally call Betty on her hypocrisy. Of course, Don is also a hypocrite, calling Betty a whore for her relationship with Henry, after he's knocked extramarital boots on both coasts and in a few places in between. But Jon Hamm and January Jones are so good in this moment. Hamm in particular has been nothing short of spectacular in these past few episodes, as the veneer of Don Draper has chipped away, leaving wounded, angry Dick Whitman exposed to lash out at the world. And lash out he did, dropping all the denial about the death of his marriage and tearing into Betty for all it's worth. Bravo!
* As usually happens when Don's life is falling apart, we got an Archie flashback, about how Archie's attempt to strike out on his own as a businessman led to (I'm assuming) his death by horse, right in front of the eyes of young Dick. Is that what Don is secretly scared will happen to him now that he's declared his own independence (well -- not literally. But you know what I mean)? Or is it some kind of foreshadowing that the business is doomed? We'll see.
* Don might have lost Betty for good, but he did win back one of the women in his life. When Peggy balks at Don ordering her to follow him to the new business, Don takes a gentler approach, going to her apartment and telling her how sorry he is for his behavior, and how much she means to him. Elisabeth Moss is so wonderful in this scene, as she quietly loses her icy veneer in the light of Don's tenderness. When she suggests that a rejection of Don's offer will mean losing him for good, the tears in her eyes and voice just about break your heart. That's why we're thrilled when Don seals the deal by telling her that he'll always want to work with her. Sniff.
* Though the other "getting the band back together" scenes weren't quite as emotional, I did love Don finally admitting to Pete that the younger man has been a step ahead on so many things, and the firm needs his vision. Because, for all his faults, Pete really is the idea man he's always seen himself as. It was nice to see Don finally recognize that. I also loved Pryce's gleeful reaction upon getting fired and the glorious sight of Joan, sashaying into the Coop and quickly figuring out how to steal all the information necessary to start the new business. But, when the gang couldn't get the art department door open, a part of me hoped that Sal would bound in like Superman and declare "Never fear! I have a key!" Alas, since Lucky Strike is the cornerstone of the new business, that could never happen. But I can dream. Besides, the sight of Don kicking in the door was almost as good.
* Of all the reactions to the realization that Don and co. have flown the Coop (yes, I have been waiting for an excuse to use that one all season), the most quietly devastating was that of Paul Kinsey. When he opens the door to Peggy's office and realizes that the guys asked her to join the new firm and not him, his whole body slumps. He's not surprised, having figured out long ago how superior Peggy's talent is to his own. But it still hurts. Nice work by Michael Gladis in this brief moment.
* Speaking of which, is this the last we've seen of Kinsey, or of Kenny and his haircut? Will they get hired into the new business if it takes off? Or will the guys opt for more non-traditional thinkers like Pete and Peggy? I'm thinking the latter though, if that's true, I'll sort of miss Kenny and Paul. But I'll learn to live without them.
* I know they had to take Harry, but he's such a jerk. Here's hoping they'll quickly dump him and hand over the TV department to Joan. We know she can handle it.
* I don't know what Pryce was happier about -- the fact that he got to stick it to those jerks at PPL or that he was finally rid of the odious Moneypenny.
* I'm sad that we won't get to see how this risk pays off for nearly a year, but at least "Mad Men" left us with a few good Roger-isms before heading off into the sunset. My favorite? Roger trying to make Pryce comfortable during the discussion of the sale by cooing "Don't act like a stranger. We've got tea!" I also loved his reaction to Jane's obsessing over JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald -- "Most interest that girl's ever had in a book depository."
* Well, that's it for me. I've enjoyed writing these recaps. Please join me next season!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The "Glee" soundtrack makes me shake my moneymaker

So, when Fox sent me the soundtrack for its new musical comedy series "Glee," I tried to be professional. I put it in, and listened to it critically. Being a technical moron, I hadn't downloaded the songs from iTunes like everyone else, so this was my first chance to weigh whether certain songs were more or less appealing when not accompanied by the choreography and spirited personalities of the show's winning cast (more in some cases, less in others). I pondered whether I preferred the CD's version of "Can't Fight This Feeling" to the show's version, which simply had Finn (Cory Monteith) singing the song in the shower (I prefer the latter -- but then, I'm a dirty old lady).
Then, I arrived at track three: "Gold Digger." That's when I stopped analyzing and started dancing. Like really dancing. I mean, butt-slapping was involved (what can I say? To quote another new series, that's how I make the horsey go).
This, friends, is the magic of "Glee." One second, you're cursing the stupidity of a husband who can't tell that his wife is faking a pregnancy. And the next, you're shaking your moneymaker as funky white boy Will (Matthew Morrison) croons "Bust a Move."
See, "Glee" is, at its heart, about the power of music to make people happy. Thus, so is the "Glee" soundtrack. True, some tracks are a bit of a drag. I honestly can't stomach that song "No Air," despite the always-fine vocal chops of Monteith and Lea Michele, who plays arrogant ingenue Rachel. But when these songs click, there's nothing quite like them. And there's plenty of click on this album, particularly the two tracks featuring diva Kristen Chenoweth, and those hip-hop inflected tracks sung by Morrison. I was a little disappointed that the soundtrack didn't feature the "Glee" version of "Push It," or the songs performed by rival choral group "Vocal Adrenaline" (or, for that matter, the songs sung by the series' short-lived male choral group, Acafellas).
But I'm confident that at least some of those tunes will be on "Glee: The Music, Volume 2," to be released Dec. 8. In the mean time, I plan to shake it "Gold Digger" as much as possible.
"Glee: The Music, Season One" is in stores now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Technical difficulties...

As some of you might have noticed, my posts have been sparse lately. That's because my computer has been on the fritz and is out for repairs. For the past couple of weeks, I've been typing my "Mad Men" recaps on my husband's computer but have put a hold on all other posts.
That's why you haven't yet seen anything on USA's charming new drama "White Collar" (love it -- and promise to write something about it soon) or FX's new sitcom "The League" (like it, but not sure I'm in it for the long haul). I also haven't been able to weigh in on the progress of some of my favorite shows (Jennifer Carpenter's work on "Dexter" is better than ever, isn't it?) And, since ABC posts all its screeners online, I wasn't able to preview the new series "V" (I'll DVR and try to watch soon -- promise).
But I have a computer now, and will try to be better about my posts. And don't forget to read my recap of the season finale of "Mad Men," which will appear online on Monday!

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Mad Men" recap: The aftermath of catastrophe

Early in this season of "Mad Men," we learned that Roger Sterling's daughter Margaret had planned her wedding for Nov. 23, 1963 -- the day AFTER JFK's assassination. Ever since then, the show's more observant fans have been wondering how that decision would play out. Would the season end with the assassination, leading us to wonder whatever happened to Margaret and her ill-timed nuptials? Would the season, in crafty "Mad Men" fashion, actually end before the assassination, leading us to wonder how this momentous event affected all of our Sterling Cooper friends? Or, would we actually get to see the assassination and its aftermath and learn how everyone -- including the Sterlings -- responded?
Well, on last night's episode, we finally got our answer. The Kennedy assassination happened, and tore through these characters like a freight train. It didn't help that, around the time of Kennedy's death, most of the "Mad Men" characters are dealing with the fallout of their own life-changing events. Don and Betty are figuring out how the Dick Whitman reveal will affect their ever-fragile marriage. Pete finds out that he'd lost the accounts job to Ken. Roger is realizing that he's become a new man for the wrong woman. And Peggy is realizing that, as long as he's funny and has access to nice hotel rooms, it's not so bad sharing nooners with a crass divorced alcoholic who abuses dogs.
Obviously, there's a lot to talk about here, so let's dive in, shall we?
Spoilers ahead:
Much like "The Color Blue" episode from a few weeks ago, this week's offering (titled "The Grown-Ups")starts off slowly before smacking us in the face. We get the usual office atmosphere. The heat is broken. Everyone's cold. Pete is angry to learn he lost head of accounts to Ken. Don is angry to learn he can't hire a new art director. The heat is fixed, everyone is too hot. Roger is angry to learn that both his daughter and his wife are spoiled brats who simply can't be counted on to keep peace in the family. And Paul learns that Peggy is a frisky dame who is clandestinely arranging nooners with someone who calls himself Mr. Herman (yes, it's Duck).
Then, all of sudden, everything changes. The Kennedy assassination happens but the show cleverly introduces it in a sly, almost invisible way. Pete comes to pump Harry for information about the head of accounts issue. They're talking and Harry, as always, has the TV on in the background so he can monitor the commercials. As they yammer away, we hear the announcement that someone has shot at Kennedy's motorcade. But Harry and Pete don't hear it! They just keep talking. History is happening on the TV mere inches behind them, and they're talking office politics! Of course, they don't know that they're being oblivious to one of the more horrifying events of the 20th century. To them, nothing is more important than what they're discussing. And isn't that pretty authentic? Aren't we often so wrapped up in our own lives that we can't see the big picture? In fact, you could argue that, despite the 24 hour news cycle, we're more self-centered now than ever. As our technology has grown, so has our need to pursue our own petty concerns. In fact, we often use that very technology that should be making us more aware of the world we live in gossip and vent using email, social networking and other tools. If this "Mad Men" moment teaches us anything, it's that humankind is, first and foremost, self-absorbed.
Of course, this moment doesn't last, and soon, everyone is in a frenzy over the assassination.
Betty is at home, watching the news coverage, bathed in tears with her two children around her. Carla soon joins them, sobbing. Overlooking all the social, racial and economic barriers that separate them, the two women sit together on the couch crying and, for one moment, they're on exactly the same page. A nice touch -- Sally comforts her crying mother, offering Betty the kind of tenderness and strength that Betty herself was incapable of offering Sally when Gene died. How sad is it when a little girl in elementary school is way more emotionally mature than nearly every adult around her (with the possible exception of Carla)?
Soon after, Don comes home, sends Betty off to Valiumland and tries to console Bobby and Sally. "Everything's going to be fine." That's a lie, of course, but that's what you tell children so they can go on with their lives. Plus, I think Don actually believes it.
The Sterlings are going on with their lives, and decide to hold Margaret's wedding anyway. Look, I know people are going to think the Sterlings are callous but, having just had my own wedding a little over a year ago, I still clearly remember how much planning and money goes into that thing. Yes, the wedding was, as Roger later admits, a total disaster, but what do you do? Canceling everything on a day's notice would have been a pain (though I'm sure everyone would have understood) and poor Margaret was so conflicted about even getting married, she probably thought she'd never go through with it if she had to delay. So you do what you do. Would I have done it? I honestly don't know, but I'm sure glad I didn't have to decide.
Anyway, our series regulars are divided into two camps: those who attend, and those who don't. Actually, the only ones in the latter camp are the Campbells (and maybe Peggy, but I don't think she was invited). Pete, still reeling from the accounts debacle, didn't want to go to the wedding anyway. But after Kennedy, he finds he can't even pretend to care about stupid Margaret and her nuptials. Trudy protests at first, but eventually gives in, particularly after Pete describes Harry coldly calculating how much money was being lost from unaired commercials. God, Harry's a jerk, isn't he? I mean, I know he was just doing his job, but should human decency and grief take over in a situation like that? Not if you're Spectacles McJerkface, I guess.
As the Campbells are experiencing a moment of solidarity, Betty is pulling further and further from her husband. She sees Henry Francis and Margaret's wedding and, even in this time of national woe, takes a second to be relieved when she learns the attractive woman dancing with Henry is his daughter, not a date. As she dances with Don, he tells her -- as he told the children -- that everything will be fine. They kiss, but Betty is distracted. Later, when Lee Harvey Oswald is shot, she knows that everything will not be OK. Don was lying to her once again. Yes, this time, Don's dishonesty wasn't intentional, and was meant to console his wife. But will you agree with me that this is what sent Betty right over the edge? She just can't handle life in Don's fantasy world, and bolts for a rendez vous with Henry. Henry tells Betty that, if she leaves Don, he'll marry her and the offer does seem tempting (though what does that say about Henry? He had Betty have met a handful of times. He barely knows her. How can he already be planning a life with her? What's up with him, anyway?).
At any rate, Betty comes home and tells Don she doesn't love him anymore. She feels nothing for him. Don tries to blow her off, but Betty's announcement does have an impact. Soon, Don is back at work, where the only other person present is Peggy. Peggy explains that her roommate has invited over everyone in the building to watch TV and mourn. And Peggy's mom is so caught up in her own grief, that there's no room for anyone else to feel anything. She plans to watch the funeral in Coop's office, and asks Don to join her. Don declines and heads off to booze in his office. Oof.
Here are some more thoughts on "The Grown-Ups":
* I like that Betty and Don are totally at cross purposes in this episode. Don, after having told Betty the truth, seems to feel closer to her than ever. He's noticeably softer with her; more comfortable and more relaxed. Meanwhile, Betty is pulling back more and more. Don now sees his marriage as truly complete, whereas Betty sees it as nothing more than a web of lies. Even the tragedy of Kennedy can't pull them back together. Instead, this world-altering moment just makes Betty more aware of how much her own life has changed. The world felt safe and secure with Kennedy in charge (well, for the most part), then that was torn apart. Betty felt secure with Don (at least, after she let him back in the house), then had that pulled out from under her, too. The nation is at a crossroads and so is Betty. And she's starting to think that Don might not be the right path.
* So, when this show started, did ANYONE think the Campbells would end up having a stronger marriage than the Drapers? But, as Don and Betty drift apart, Pete and Trudy are more together than ever. How touching to see Trudy finally give in to her husband, pull off her shoes and join him on the couch. Their marriage isn't perfect, but it is a real marriage.
* Think of Roger what you will, but I thought he handled Margaret's wedding with grace. His toast could have been a brusque, soulless Roger-esque mess. But, instead, it was honest and considerate. He spoke kindly about Mona, and sincerely thanked everyone for showing up. He made the best of an awful situation, and I was actually kind of proud of him.
* Not proud of Jane, however. God, can that woman not attend an event without getting rip-roaring drunk? Nice touch -- as she babbles about Kennedy after Roger pours her onto the bed, Jane mentions that she'll never get to vote for Kennedy. Right. Because she probably wasn't old enough to vote when he ran originally. Given the silliness of this child bride, is it any wonder that Roger seeks the solace of a real woman? Yes, he calls Joan. And frankly, didn't they both light up when they spoke to each other? Joan reveals that she's alone -- worthless Greg is at the ER, helping out with routine emergencies. Roger said he's glad, because he needed to talk to her. And, for the first time in the evening, he stops being brave and is entirely honest. It's a nice moment for John Slattery, and Christina Hendricks, too. I do hope we're not done with Joan, because this relationship clearly needs closer examination, don't you think?
* In the midst of all this sadness, this was a bright moment: We finally got to see another glimpse of Karen Erickson, the secret Swede! I don't know why that makes me happy. It just does.
* We also learned that Peggy and Duck weren't a one-night thing. They're seeing each other regularly, and, shockingly, Peggy actually seems to like Duck. Oh, Peggy. No. Just...no. Admittedly, Duck can turn on the charm when he wants to (his politically incorrect diss on Kurt and Smitty does make Peggy laugh), but he is so creepy. I mean, he unplugged the TV so his afternoon romp wouldn't be spoiled by the horrible news about Kennedy. If Pete's planning to leave the Coop for Duck's firm, he shouldn't expect a more hospitable work environment. Seems like Duck is just Harry Crane with better vision.