Mad Men started with Ken Cosgrove almost getting killed in the craziest car ride since Blue Velvet and ended with Don scaling back at work under the emotional weight of, what exactly? Mommy issues? Marital issues? His newfound speed addiction? Maybe a little bit of everything?
This episode was sort of everything that has been wrong with Season 6. We all loved that Mad Men always knew how to shock us and change direction in the most unexpected and interesting of ways, ways that, once the surprise was launched, seemed totally natural and inevitable in hindsight. This was not a surprise like that. This was just Ken Cosgrove tap dancing and Ginsberg slinging knives at Rizzo (considering Ginsberg's beat-inspired name, was their game of William Tell an allusion to the infamous version that William S. Burrows played with his wife?) without it really adding up to anything. Instead of being thematically whole, the episode was just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Well, it signified something, just not something very interesting.
I'm sure when the episode wrapped there were many people sitting at home thinking, "I totally didn't get that. Since this is Mad Men, I must not be smart enough to get it." Wrong. The problem was that the episode, while fun and entertaining, was so poorly plotted that even David Lynch would find it harder to follow than a polar bear in a blizzard.
And don't get me started on those flashbacks. They annoyed me the first time they were deployed this season, but in this otherwise chaotic episode, they certainly didn't help streamline things. Seeing Don's childhood directly takes something away from this unknowable anti-hero that the show has been cultivating all these years. It makes the show into something like Lost or, even worse, Once Upon a Time, where we're supposed to learn about the characters and their present situations based on events from the past. Has Mad Men fallen so far that it is now using a tired network storytelling device?
Of course, everyone is going to think that this episode was about drugs, because Jim Cutler gets everyone some sort of speed shot so they can be more creative. (Actually, in light of last season's wonderful LSD trip, it was almost like the writers said, "What if we did a whole episode like that?") This hour was not about drugs. It was really about Don's mommy issues. While I'm sure he's always had these, Don was always a much more literary character, signifying something about identity, the American dream, and the lies we use to get ahead. Now he's just a kid raised in a whore house who had some rough times. Now he's just a Freudian study.
Don has three maternal figures in this episode — well, two and a half, really. First there is his stepmother, who diagnoses his illness. The next is Aimeé, the hooker who nurses him back to health and then takes his virginity. The final one is Grandma Ida, who wasn't really a mother figure at all, but a con artist who pretended to be the woman who raised him. It's bad enough that Don never had a mother, but now we see that every woman who was kind to him when he was young was not only highly sexualized but also betrayed him in some way. All of Don's mothers, especially Grandma Ida, are imposters just like him.
The one interesting thing about this episode is how each of the mother figures are a direct parallel to one of the women that he's been in love with. First there is Betty (blonde and skinny again, just like we like her), his first love who has become a hectoring scold, just like his stepmother who called him dirty and beat him for sleeping with Aimeé. Next there is Megan, who found Don two seasons ago when he was sick, tricked him into loving her, and now is increasingly absent — following Aimée's arc. That leaves us with Sylvia, someone who used to sneak in through the back door, the maid's entrance, just like Ida did. Syivia also pretended to be someone she is not when she called Don at work and said she was Arnold. In the parallel trifecta, she has also stolen something from Don, something he thinks is important. It's his heart. Awww.
If you didn't realize this was about Don, his mothers, and his lovers, we had Wendy, a girl whose father just died, telling Don that he has a broken heart and leaving him wondering if anyone loves him. That's one of those classic Mad Men existential questions that is meant to be left unanswered.
While all this is going on, Don and everyone else is working on the Chevy account, which turns out to be much more trying than they thought it would be when they went after the business. Peggy and Ginsberg, the most sober of the crew, are herding the rest of the cats towards an idea. Stan has 666 ideas, none of which are any good. Don is trying to make everyone think that he's working, but he's really blacking out and flashing back, losing whole chunks of time when he's not fighting off the advances of an I Ching-loving hippie hussy.
But Don isn't doing anything. He's running around and searching for old soup ads, but he's not really thinking about Chevy. He's trying to piece together his own past and come up with the one thing that he can tell Sylvia to win her back. (In all these years, is this the first time we've seen Don not able to get a woman he wants?) When he calls Peggy and Ginsberg into his office to deliver what we expect to be one of his killer campaigns, it's just a bunch of gobbledygook. He carries on about trying to make the commercial what people tune in for rather than the entertainment, like he's going to develop product placement or something (maybe that was a dig against Christina Hendricks' Johnny Walker ads?) but it is really nothing. It's just Don being high.
After he goes home and passes out, the next day he wakes up and finally runs into Sylvia in the elevator. Earlier, he had been inventing ways of talking to her when he knocked on her door, but in the sober light of day, he remains silent. He walks away from her, knowing now that she is an invasive impostor who has barged into his house and upset things. She is not the solution, she is another symptom of the problem. He also marches into his office and says he will only be inspecting other people's work. He blames it on Chevy not wanting to make an ad for another three years, but it seems to be because he has lost his creative spark. Maybe it's because he has mined his past for all the material that he can. Now that he's coming to terms with that hooker raising him he doesn't have any schmaltzy soup/oatmeal ads left. This entire season seems to be about Don Draper's decline and now he's not only stopped producing good work, he's stopped producing work altogether.
Sally Draper got a decent amount of screen time this episode, and handled herself quite well in the tense and bizarre situation of dealing with Grandma Ida without getting herself killed. Through it she learned that she doesn't know anything about her father so she couldn't even tell Grandma Ida she was lying. When faced with the great lie of Don's past, everything else is unknowable. He has the opportunity to tell her something about himself, but he is interrupted, like always, by work. I also loved that Sally was in bed reading Rosemary's Baby and then is awoken by Ida. Last season we saw her terrorized by the idea of violence towards women, but now she's getting more comfortable and canny about the idea of evil in the world. I don't know if this is a good thing, but it's there.
Stan Rizzo was also a central figure this episode. Not only did he screw Wendy (while her dead father's former business partner watched, no less) but he also came onto Peggy while she was bandaging his arm, another maternal figure who has become sexualized. Peggy tries to stop him from kissing her and says she has a boyfriend, but there's something that makes her want to do it. It's like her kiss with Ted two weeks ago. Since Peggy is becoming Don Draper, she's copying a classic move of his: starting a new relationship to wreck the one she's already in. But she wisely stops herself with Stan because he's like a brother to her. I also loved her speech about having to feel the loss in your life and not try to escape through booze or sex. It seems like she was talking directly to Don even though he wasn't in the room.
Of course, we learn this when she tells us, point blank, that is why she isn't doing it. Apparently whatever drug they were all on, the one effect it had was to take all the subtext that is usually in the show and fill it with text. Like finding a book of Mad Libs that someone has already used, the blanks have already been filled in and all the fun is gone. Yes, it's funny when Ken Cosgrove does his tap dance, but his tap dance is quite literally a tap dance. He feels like his job is tap dancing for others. Duh. It all makes total sense, yet it all doesn't add up. That means that, no matter how much fun we had last night, it was all completely useless.
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Eighteen-year-old Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin) has been for reasons too convoluted to go into left for dead. But his body’s still alive and his spirit – stuck in limbo – continues to interact with those around him desperately trying to communicate his existential plight before his body – hidden in a storm drain - expires. Being caught between life and death is probably a scary place but it’s likely more compelling than depicted here. The cause of Nick’s current dilemma is Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) a juvenile delinquent and classmate of Nick’s whose troubled upbringing turned her into such a teen terror. Nick must try and compel Annie to locate his body but it takes an inordinate amount of time to do it during which the story – and the film as a whole - falls apart. After awhile it’s difficult to work up much sympathy to say nothing of any interest for what happens to these characters. Chatwin (Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds) scores his first big-screen lead here and does about as well as can be expected under the circumstances which are fairly dire. With better material this might have been a decent showcase for his leading-man qualities. Better luck next time. Not nearly as fortunate is Levieva playing the prettiest leader of a high-school crime ring in recent memory. One minute she’s playing it tough and thrashing Nick within an inch of his life. The next she’s tearfully admonishing her little brother (Alex Ferris) not to make the same mistakes she made. It’s a terrible role and worse an inconsistent one. The biggest name in the cast Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Nick’s domineering mother. Like many of the roles in the film it’s strictly one-note. Still it’s nice having a pro like Harden on hand – even if the film goes out of its way to squander her talents. Only Callum Keith Rennie as the obligatory detective on the case manages to bring a little credibility to the proceedings. So naturally the film ignores him for long stretches. David S. Goyer is better known – and rightly so – for the films he’s written (Dark City Batman Begins and the Blade films) than the ones he’s directed (Blade: Trinity anyone?). But the true blame here falls on screenwriters Mick Davis and Christine Roum whose attempt to combine a supernatural storyline doused with teen angst fails miserably. At times The Invisible feels like leftovers from The Sixth Sense Ghost Jacob's Ladder The Butterfly Effect (yikes!) any number of Twilight Zone episodes and even Groundhog Day. The Invisible is based on a Swedish novel and a previous film but like the many Asian chillers that undergo an “Americanized” remake something has been lost in the translation – starting with credibility even on its own terms. So many movies undergo reshoots these days but rarely has an entire movie felt like a reshoot. The Invisible has that dubious distinction.
In adapting a rather flimsy children’s book into a full-fledged feature film one has to take some liberties. We first meet the lovable little monkey in the wild where his curious habits wreck havoc. Meanwhile in the big city Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell)--aka The Man with the Yellow Hat--is a highly enthusiastic guide at the soon-to-be-closed Bloomsberry Museum. In order to save the museum (here’s where they pad it) he is sent on a mission to Africa to retrieve a lost shrine. But when he gets there the only thing he finds is a miniature version of it--and George of course. The lonely monkey decides to follow Ted all the way back to the city where his mischievous tendencies get him into even more trouble. George nearly ruins everything for Ted but somehow the little feller eventually grows on him. How could he not? If I can borrow a line from Madagascar little George is so cute I just like to dunk him in my coffee. When you’re reading Curious George out loud to your kids you don’t get the impression The Man with the Yellow Hat is a good-natured but geeky fellow gangly clumsy and clueless about women. Thank goodness the film has Will Ferrell to clear it up for us! You basically know what you’re in for once you recognize his voice and his natural comic timing shines through lending for some funnier moments (“OK I’m looking directly into the sun. Staring right at it. I’ve got to be honest with you it stings…”). The other voices in the film also do a fine job including Drew Barrymore as a schoolteacher who has a crush on Ted; Eugene Levy as the mad museum scientist; Dick Van Dyke as the museum’s old-time curator; and David Cross as his weasly greedy son. Based on the books and illustrations by Margret and H.A. Rey Curious George embraces the essence of the timeless stories created 65 years ago. The film apparently took awhile to find its voice. Producer Ron Howard originally conceived it as live-action film but quickly realized they could never get a real monkey as cute and fuzzy as George. Then CGI was considered but ultimately the filmmakers kept returning to the source: the late H.A. Rey’s original painstakingly beautiful illustrations. Thankfully they stuck with that idea. Curious George is lush and vibrant with all of Rey’s best efforts fully realized in Technicolor. And much like what the Piglet’s Big Movie did with Carly Simon and The Wild Thornberrys with Paul Simon Curious George is also sprinkled with original songs by hot pop singer Jack Johnson to give it a modern feel. So what if the story gets a little overblown in parts it will still introduce one of literature’s most enduring icons to the young-un’s--while allowing the adults to reminisce.