Category Archives: TV

Margaret Atwood’s Feminist Horror Story

Margaret Atwood has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I ever read. As a seventeen-year-old budding feminist, Atwood’s cautionary tale had a lasting impact on me, with certain scenes still etched in my memory. This week saw the release of the first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.

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The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist nightmare where, as a response to widespread inferility, the government has taken control of women’s bodies. Fertile women are forcibly trained by religious leaders and assigned as handmaids to high-status couples who have been unable to conceive. It’s sex slavery hiding behind religious justification. I hope that anyone would be horrified by imagining this reality, but it’s particularly frightening as a woman to imagine what your life would be if your worth was determined entirely by your husband or ability to procreate.

Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (“of Fred”), a handmaid whose daughter was taken and husband shot as they tried to escape the country. The series opens with their flight through the woods, pursued by armed men. Being hunted like an animal anticipates Offred’s new life, in which she is essentially breeding stock. Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that Elisabeth Moss has the ability to project silent agony and repressed rage. This role gives her ample opportunities for both. I wasn’t initially sure about her decision to deliver the voiceover in a hoarse whisper, but it fits the tone of repression that permeates the story.

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As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly cinematic. Light and shadows are both used in extremes, from lens flares to dark figures silhouetted against a window. A culture of extremity is also reflected in the handmaids’ uniform of a long red dress and white bonnet. When out in public, oversized wings are added to the bonnet to obscure their faces. Pop music is inserted sparingly at climatic moments. Although I found the music conspicuous in the first episode, the fact that it’s incongruous with the world being shown makes it effectively jarring. After all, speculative or dystopian fiction aims to show us how aspects of an imagined society bear a disquieting resemblance to our reality.

Although watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly joyless experience, I believe that it’s a valuable one. Margaret Atwood externalizes the Madonna-whore complex by creating a society in which women are explicitly categorized as virtuous wives or sexual handmaids. (There are also domestic servant “Marthas” and execution or exile.) This may seem like an impossible idea, but the aspects of this story exist around the world in different forms. Even in relatively liberated societies, women feel the opposing pressures to be sexy but not slutty, a good girl but not a prude. In a tumultuous time, I appreciate that creators are reminding us about what has been, what still is, and what we must be vigilant to prevent.

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If You Were Me: Mad Men, Season 3

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“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been,” Don Draper tells a sexy stewardess in the first episode of the season. From the start of season three, we know that the past will be encroaching more persistently than ever before. The first scene involves flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s birth with adult Dick/Don staring across a dark kitchen at the ugliness of his own conception. Born to a prostitute who died in childbirth, Dick was raised by a woman who never allowed him to forget his origins. Reinventing himself as Don Draper has taken him far, but he always returns to the reality of his self-loathing.

Given his background, there are certainly Freudian implications to Don’s interactions with women. Is he seeking the love and acceptance that he never received from a mother-figure? Or is his sporadic disregard for their feelings a way of getting back at the callous woman who raised him? Despite his hatred for his father, Don bears similarities to him in his drinking and philandering. The biggest difference is that Don’s misbehavior is usually controlled. In the seventh episode, a drug-induced stupor shows Don a vision of his father, who watches him with disgust. Fear of being his father’s son looms large in Don’s psyche.

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After two precarious seasons, season three sees the final breakdown of the Drapers’ marriage. Don and Betty both conduct affairs, physical or emotional, that suggest what’s missing in their relationship with each other. Don is entranced by Sally’s teacher at the end of the second episode. As she dances barefoot in the grass, Miss Farrell seems to offer purity and renewal, but she resists Don’s advances until episode nine. She also calls him out for being a cliché of suburban boredom, saying that he wants her “because I’m new and different. Or maybe I’m exactly the same.” Despite pointing out the exhausting inevitability of Don’s affairs, he seems to appreciate that she isn’t fooled by him.

Betty loses her father early in the season—the man who indignantly told Don that his daughter is a princess. There are paternal aspects to her relationship with Henry Francis, who promises that he wants to take care of her. Don made similar attempts, but his care was usually financial rather than emotional. In Henry she finds someone who will treat her delicately while being direct about his intentions. Henry tells her, “I’m not in love with the tragedy of this thing. It’s not Romeo and Juliet. I want it to happen.” After years of marriage to Don, Betty is tired of playing the tragic heroine and ready to be revered again.

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There are several lines of dialogue in the final episodes that are reminiscent of meaningful moments from the previous season. Most heartbreaking, when Betty confronts Don about his true identity, she asks, “What would you do if you were me? Would you love you?” I was reminded of Pete going to Don for guidance after his father’s death, skeptical to believe that Don would follow his own advice. Both scenes emphasize the unknowable facets of other people. Another callback comes in Don’s speech to recruit Peggy for the new agency. He tells her that she understands this concept: “There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, and something happened—something terrible. And the way they saw themselves is gone.” This echoes Peggy’s speech to Pete in the season two finale, explaining to him that she feels a part of herself is gone and won’t come back. Don sees this in Peggy and considers her a kindred spirit because of it.

Want is a central theme of the show, and the final episode of season three gives us a direct articulation of what Don Draper wants. Furious that Bert Cooper is willing to let the agency disappear without a fight, Don declares, “I want to work. I want to build something of my own. How can you not understand that?” It’s a simple statement, but also one of the truest things his character has ever said. The dogged determination to create something out of nothing is Don’s greatest virtue. Roger tells Don, “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them,” to which Don replies, “I value my relationship with you.” If this is true, it’s because Roger understands The Work, and The Work is everything to Don.

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The gleeful creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Price is a high point of the series. When Don looks around the hotel suite bustling with the members of his fledgling agency, he actually appears content. He’s ready to let go of his marriage and start anew. It just so happens, the next season is my absolute favorite.

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This Never Happened: Mad Men, Season 2

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Don Draper’s life is all about moving forward, or so he would like to believe. In the first season of Mad Men, two women ask him how he goes from work and affairs to an outwardly normal home life, and his response is “I don’t even think about it.” Don and several other characters try to live by his philosophy in season two, but the results are often less successful than they first appear.

Episode five, “The New Girl,” has several flashbacks to Peggy’s time in the hospital after giving birth. Peggy is in deep denial, but she doesn’t extract herself from the situation until receiving a visit from Don. After giving his patented advice to move forward, Don tells her, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” As we see throughout the season, Peggy is trying to live by his advice, yet Don seems to be cracking under the pressure of his own secrets and self-denials. By the third episode, he’s returned to his old pattern, entering into an affair with a comedian’s wife. However, unlike his affairs in the first season, his interactions with Bobbie Barrett have no warmth or affection. Their liaisons are about a fleeting moment of domination and oblivion.

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In episode five, “Maidenform,” Don becomes uncomfortable under his daughter’s loving gaze on two occasions. After the first time he runs to Bobbie, and the second time he just asks Sally to leave him alone. Both instances prove that for all his talk about forgetting the past, Don feels like a fraud when faced with his daughter’s blind admiration. By mid-season, when Betty is tipped off to his most recent affair, Don’s self-loathing must be reaching maximum capacity. Jimmy Barrett tells Don, “You’re garbage and you know it,” and we believe him. As Don escapes to California for a business trip, we see a more drastic attempt to either forget the past or find a place where he is truly known.

And where Don feels truly known is not in a stranger’s mansion with a group of cosmopolitan nomads. The companionship of a young, carefree woman would seem to offer everything his philandering heart desires, but he ultimately rejects her as well. Instead he goes to Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose identity he stole. In her presence he can be plain old Dick Whitman again. During this visit, Anna delivers one of the most important lines of the entire series: “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”

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The desire to be known also creeps into Pete and Peggy’s conversation in the season finale. I’ve long contended that “Meditations in an Emergency” is one of the best television episodes ever. The backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis gives everyone an “end of the world” mentality, which befits Sterling Cooper’s looming merger with another ad agency. In the case of Pete Campbell, it leads him to wonder who would care if he was gone. “I mean, Trudy would care,” he tells Peggy, “but she doesn’t know me. But you do. And I know you.” The scene is tragic because Pete really doesn’t know Peggy, a fact that she makes clear by telling him about her pregnancy. It’s an end to innocence for both characters.

If season one asks, “What do I want?” then season two asks, “Who am I now?” When Pete learns of his father’s death, he goes to Don with the news. A rather bewildering choice, given their contentious history, but Pete still looks up to Don. As Pete talks over what to do next, it amounts to asking, Don, how do I be a person? Pete knows that Don won’t make a scene, not to mention Don is familiar with lacking the proper emotional responses to situations. Yet there’s something very sad about turning to Don Draper, Human Cipher, for reassurance. When Don tells him to be with his family, Pete skeptically asks, “Is that what you would do?” It’s as if he believes that Don has the key but won’t give it to him.

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In season two, Peggy continues her transformation into a career woman, eventually rejecting the earnest confession of love that her earlier self probably craved. Don tests the limits of his dual lives before ending up back at the kitchen table with Betty. In the midst of an emergency, Don goes home to his family, just as he told Pete he would, but he hardly seems less alone than the season before.

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Inventing Want: Mad Men, Season 1

In which I rewatch Mad Men from the beginning and analyze it for your reading pleasure. I’m attempting to do one post per season, but we’ll see how it goes.

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“You make the lie,” a Greenwich Village hipster tells Don Draper. “You invent want.” In the post-war heyday of consumer culture, an ad man’s job is to tell people what they want. Yet the men and women of Mad Men are constantly struggling to understand what they themselves want or need. This central theme can be found in every episode of the first season, sometimes very explicitly stated, but always there under the surface.

“Ladies Room,” the second episode, finds Don asking, “What do women want?” He poses the question in a creative meeting about spray deodorant, but the idea clearly derives from trouble at home. His wife Betty is suffering from unexplained nerves and might need to see a psychiatrist. Apart from his disdain for psychiatry, Don can’t understand why Betty could be unhappy when she has “all of this.” All of this is the picturesque suburban home and two children to occupy her days. He later tells her, “It’s my job to give you what you want.” Of course, for Don this means the material proof of success and respectability, which his own childhood utterly lacked.

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Undefined want is not limited to the show’s female characters. “New Amsterdam,” episode four, feels like it’s asking, “What do men want?” Or perhaps more broadly, “What makes you a man?” The episode follows Pete Campbell’s conflict with his new wife over buying an apartment that they can’t afford on their own. Accustomed to always getting what she wants, Trudy happily turns to her parents for money. Pete, in typical Pete fashion, is feeling emasculated at every turn. With most of his achievements coming on the back of his family connections, Pete craves nothing more than respect and control. Don likes to undermine these efforts at work, while Trudy does so at home. All he has are small rebellions like trading in a duplicate wedding present for an air rifle.

Some characters’ desires are easier to define than others. As the central enigma of the show, Don’s are arguably given the most attention and complexity. For a character like Betty, I would venture to say that she wants the substance of her life to match the facade. The culture of Mad Men is all about presenting the most attractive image to the world, while the show delights in revealing the unflattering truth behind it. Betty wants her picture perfect life to actually be perfect, with the devoted husband and well-behaved children. In her bizarre interactions with Glenn Bishop, he says she’s beautiful and compares her to a princess. Betty wants Don to put her on that same pedestal, as he may have done at the beginning of their relationship before the mundanities of life crept in.

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Betty’s world is shaken whenever she sees the truth behind someone else’s facade. The most potent example is divorced Helen Bishop, whose presence in the neighborhood is a specter to Betty, the embodiment of her worst nightmare. Mad Men is obsessed with doubling characters like this. At turns the characters emulate or recoil from each other, but always provide juxtaposition. Don and Pete are my favorite example. Pete wants to be like Don from the first episode, but he lacks the natural charisma. Besides which, Don is (quite literally) a self-made man, giving him no patience for the old money that has smoothed Pete’s path in life. However, Don doesn’t always have the upper hand, particularly when he can’t fire Pete due to the social connections he brings to the agency.

The season finale contains Don’s famous pitch to Kodak for their new projector wheel. Using photos of his own family in the presentation, Don talks about nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart” and “the pain from an old wound.” He says the projector can bring them back “to a place where we know we are loved.” During his affair with Rachel, Don wants to believe that she knows everything about him, but she won’t consent to be with him in the all-consuming way that he craves. His family doesn’t know the whole truth about him, but they have shown a willingness to love him blindly. Don wants to return to the facade and perhaps make it real. Instead he returns home to an empty house, his family already gone away for Thanksgiving, leaving him to face the reality that he is alone.

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Game of Delayed Gratification and Thrones

Another season of Game of Thrones is behind us, and I have some thoughts and feelings. No subject is off the table, so only read on if you’re completely caught up. And in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.”

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Game of Thrones always has many narrative pieces on the board, and Season 6 finally brought some of those pieces together. To borrow baseball lingo, Season 5 felt like a “rebuilding season.” Tyrion was travelling toward Daenerys. Daenerys was struggling in Meereen. Arya was assassin-training in Braavos. Bran wasn’t actually present, but we knew he was off seer-training with the Three-Eyed Raven. Although they were having some interesting adventures, these characters were in narrative limbo, on their way to series-altering action that was not yet imminent. King’s Landing and Castle Black offered us ch-ch-changes, but so many fan favorites were away from the mainstage of Westeros.

Luckily, Game of Thrones fans expect heartache and delayed gratification. Along came Season 6, and the gratification started rolling in, as did the heartache. Characters returned after many seasons of absence! Starks were reunited! The good guys started to find each other and ban together against evil! Except that this is Game of Thrones, so even the “good guys” commit objectively evil acts from time to time. One of my attractions to this show is how it can change my opinion about a character multiple times over. For example, I remember hating all of the Lannisters with a fiery passion during Season 1, with the obvious exception of Tyrion. Now Jaime has become one of my favorite characters, and even Cersei can elicit sympathy while simultaneously being awful.

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In my first post about Game of Thrones, I discussed how George R. R. Martin focuses on marginalized characters. As the series has progresses, many of those characters find themselves in positions of power. Perhaps even more notably, by the end of Season 6, almost all of the leaders are women. These women have learned to play the game well, but their knowledge comes at a cost. Daenerys, Sansa, and Arya have all proven their ability to be ruthless when necessary. Even Cersei, who was fairly ruthless to begin with, reached a new level of cruelty in the season finale. As satisfying as it is to see our heroines reaching their goals and exacting revenge, the moments can be bittersweet when you consider what was sacrificed in the process. I’m reminded of Peggy on Mad Men, who learned to compete in a man’s world by sacrificing some of her humanity.

Season 6 was so full of Big Moments that it almost felt too good to be true. One of the biggest was the confirmation of R+L=J, a fan theory so popular that it was already spoken of as fact. Now that years of speculation have been satisfied, I (and the rest of the internet) have moved on to a new pet theory about the Lannister siblings. This article outlines the theory nicely. It all centers on the prophecy given to Cersei as a girl, most of which has already come true. I find prophecies to be a dubious plot device, but this particular one is so clever in its wording. Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds, and all that. Some of my greatest anticipation for the next season will be about how Jaime reacts to Cersei in full Mad Queen mode, not to mention if Tyrion arrives back on the scene.

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Game of Thrones is often imperfect, at times downright problematic, but it’s always kept me interested. I will watch this show till the bitter end.

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Serial Dramas, Seriously Addictive

In the current television landscape, serial storytelling has become commonplace. That is, television shows often stretch story arcs over an entire season (or longer), instead of the episodic storytelling found on most sitcoms and crime procedurals. With more flexibility in the scheduling and length of seasons, not to mention the rise of delayed viewing with DVR or streaming services, TV creators have the freedom to tell a wider variety of stories. Serialized dramas are my favorite result of this shift.

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How many times has your favorite TV show gone into a creative slump or pursued a storyline that you don’t find interesting? I propose that some of these missteps came from attempts to fit a narrative into the traditional 20 to 24 episode format. Maybe it doesn’t belong there! My favorite serial dramas are in mini-series form, clocking in somewhere between three and eight episodes. In terms of depth and complexity, you find yourself somewhere between a movie and a full-length series. That level of focus seems to produce some of the most interesting and satisfying stories that I’ve encountered in recent years.

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The British series Broadchurch is a wonderful example. Two detectives work to solve a murder in a picturesque seaside town. Olivia Colman provides realism and heart in her performance, while David Tennant makes me realize why people are so obsessed with him. (I’m not a Doctor Who viewer, so I only had his brief role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to gauge his talent.) When I rewatched the first series recently, I was struck by how cinematic Broadchurch is. The sets and locations feel like film-quality, and the shots are beautifully framed. I don’t know the details of production, but it seems that an eight-episode schedule would provide time and energy to make a series visually impressive.

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Another popular example is True Detective. I resisted watching the first season for at least a year, mostly because I’ve never been a big Matthew McConaughey fan. Well, here I stand corrected. In the role of Rust Cohle, he is spectacular. A good detective duo is usually a surefire formula, and McConaughey and Woody Harrelson make a dynamically flawed team. The Southern Gothic aesthetic is one that I enjoy, reminiscent of Gillian Flynn novels from a deeper South prospective. Rust Cohle circa 1995 is my personal favorite incarnation with his corduroy jackets and veiled emotional turmoil.

Broadchurch returned for a second season in 2015, which was nerve-racking as a fan. Thankfully there were enough loose ends from the first season to make the second feel interesting instead of superfluous. Since True Detective is planned as an anthology series with brand new characters every season, its return is a completely different animal. I can’t speak from my own viewing experience, but the reactions so far have been dubious. On the plus side, when each season is its own entity, a decline doesn’t taint the viewers’ enjoyment of a previous season.

I haven’t even touched on some of my favorite series (like Sherlock!), but I think I’ve made a case for the serial drama as seriously addictive entertainment.

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A Befuddling Farewell to Don Draper

The final season of Mad Men wasn’t particularly satisfying to me, and I don’t think it would hurt Matthew Weiner’s feelings to read that. After seven seasons of subtle storytelling, it would take a very naive viewer to expect a finale that ties up every loose end. If anything, the show’s creator takes pride in frustrating his audience’s expectations for narrative closure. Let’s discuss! All the Mad Men spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

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I just can’t get behind separating Don from every established character for the final episodes of the show. I understand the metaphorical significance of California in the American psyche—hey Weiner, I took American lit too—but Don’s forays to the West Coast have never done much for me. Why would I want to watch him hang out with hippies whose worldview he clearly disdains? I will roll my eyes forever that he spent the final episode at some sort of New Age retreat. The only redeeming quality is that he apparently channels the experience into a Coca-Cola ad. Now that’s the Don Draper I know. In the end, all those incremental reveals of Dick Whitman didn’t amount to much, did they?

Season four was the pinnacle of Mad Men for me. It provided a refreshing reboot for both Don’s personal life and Sterling Cooper as a company. When Don married Megan at the end of the season, my interest in his character instantly waned. It was clear that she wasn’t the right match for him, and I didn’t look forward to watching another marriage unravel at an excruciatingly slow pace. I understand that repeating the same mistakes is one of Don’s fatal flaws or whatever, but I don’t find it very compelling after seven years.

Truth be told, I found myself less invested in the show as a whole in the later seasons. Rainbow Rowell said that she had to stop watching the show when no one was trying to be good anymore, and I can appreciate that sentiment. Not perfect, mind you, but trying. When I see a character like Peggy, who has hardened almost beyond recognition over the course of the series, I feel a little defeated myself.

Aside from Don, the other major characters got more traditional wrap-ups to their stories. The only one that really irked me was Pete reconciling with Trudy, particularly his claim that he’s never loved anyone but her. Okay, that statement happens to fly in the face of my favorite Pete-Peggy scene in the entire series, so I may be sore. Then again, I’ve always loved the idea of Pete as a poor man’s version of Don, never quite able to pull off the deception. If I carry that analogy into Pete’s hypothetical future, his second attempt at marital bliss could fail as spectacularly as Don’s.

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On the subject of romantic resolutions, I had mixed feelings about the big Peggy and Stan moment. The show has thoroughly established the connection between the two, so it wasn’t completely unexpected. However, the phone call antics were a bit Friends-finale-esque, which I can’t imagine was Weiner’s intention. At least Peggy ends up with someone who a) isn’t already married and b) respects the importance of work in her life.

I’ve often said that I find Mad Men more satisfying when viewed in larger chunks. Maybe the same will hold true for the final season if I eventually feel compelled to watch it again. For now I can say that the finale was roughly in line with my expectations, if not my hopes.

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