Why Mad Men Represents the Best of TV

Don and Sally

Don and Sally in an early season (L) and in last Sunday’s episode (R).


On last Sunday’s Mad Men, Sally catches Don in a lie—she visits SCDPCDPCHCHJ (I can’t remember the agency name anymore) and finds that he’s not there, but doesn’t confront him about it when he later claims he was at the office. Once Don finds out Sally knew the truth, he asks why she withheld as well. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than to ignore it,” Sally says, no doubt recalling the events of last season, when she walked in on Don mid-hookup with a woman who was not his wife. Don sneers at Sally’s response, accusing her of lying in wait, then trapping him in a fib, “just like your mother.”

Mad Men rarely patronizes its viewers, so the show doesn’t spell out that Don is referencing the events of season three. In episode 3×11, Betty confronts Don about his identity theft after opening the Pandora’s box in his desk, chock-full of family photos and references to Dick Whitman’s life. As soon as Don spits that insult at Sally—just like your mother—we flash back to Betty standing righteously in Don’s office; to his mistress, the long forgotten schoolteacher, hunched in Don’s car parked outside. Don’s entire journey—really, his descent—is present as we flash from the moments after Betty’s confrontation in season three to the Don Draper of season seven. In the former season it was odd to watch Don, always suave and composed, shaking so forcefully in the face of Betty’s discovery that he couldn’t light his cigarette. Now Don is often that unmoored; he traipses around his house in pajamas, marking the levels of his quickly depleting liquor bottle. “I can explain,” Don sputtered to Betty in season three, the box of photos between them. “I know you can,” Betty replied. “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” It was true then; it’s not so true now.

At the moment that Don knew his wife had found him out, he must have thought it was the lowest point in his life. Looking back, he knows it was not, as do we. The depths of his misery have only deepened, and today he is essentially an unemployed alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. In a four-word phrase—just like your mother—Mad Men reminds us of Don’s relationship with Sally, his relationship with Betty, his relationship with the truth, his relationship with himself. We become conscious of the years and years we have spent with this character. Television is unique in this way; a movie, a book, a painting, are contained experiences, stretching over hours or days. Television stretches over years. This is changing through shows like True Detective or the new Fargo, one-and-dones that in future seasons will perhaps be united by an aesthetic sensibility, if not by character. But the best television takes advantage of our extended relationships with its characters and uses that intimacy to move us. “Just like your mother” reminds us how broken Don is, and how fraught he and Sally’s relationship is. Which is why the episode’s ending scene is such a gut punch. Don drops Sally off. They have had dinner, have mended at least a post on the fence. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she tosses off through the car window. “I love you.” Don is stunned, and touched, as are we. It’s so hopeful, the capacity for love after all that. And therein, the power of television: that we are able to experience all that. 


The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.


Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”


A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image


Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

Introducing the Winter Soldier: The creation of a truly terrifying Marvel villain

Great analysis of why the Winter Soldier was way scarier than any recent comic-book movie villain I can think of.


captain-america-the-winter-soldier-poster-bucky A couple weeks ago film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a plea for fellow critics to include discussions of form in their film reviews, to at least mention how the language of film is helping or hindering the movie being reviewed. It was an eloquent point well made, and also apropos of what I want to talk about in re: Captain America: The Winter Soldier . I’ve already reviewed the movie (available here and spoiler free), so what I want to get into now that we can talk about stuff without people yelling SPOILERS (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now) is how all of the elements of filmmaking worked together to bring to life the Winter Soldier, the most memorable, bone-crunchingly scary villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

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Behind the Gate

“Have you really been
behind the gate?”

Yes, I say, full with the pleasure of
a secret.

They wait

They wait

to hear.
Some eyes are round with wonder;
some squint, unsure if they should believe.
Their imaginings include
celebrities murderers runaways princesses

It is a big gate
in a small town made huge
with imagination.

How to explain
that what’s really there,
behind the gate,
is greater than even the realities in their heads.

“There is a magic forest,”
I start to say.
But get stuck.
They won’t believe
that there are creatures in the woods.
A yellow brick road, of daffodils.
A room that has no walls,
just colors,

It is a Mad Hatter place for
the grownups become children, laughing wildly,
and the children become grownups,
or what we believe grownups to be,
sharing our grand ideas of the world as everyone listens.

Not listens,

Anything can be real there.
In the kitchen, Joy explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of fairies or ghosts.
Jay is quieter, but explains,
with his food and drink and peaceful smile,
that we mustn’t be afraid
of happiness.
Jack presides over it all–
the ponies and parties and pretty people–
and explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of the truth:
That even though we are children, always told
to quietdownsettledownsitdowncalmdown,
we must live up to the fact that we’re
even brilliant.

Only as an adult do I learn
that few people
want that for others.

How paradoxical
that children think with such clarity
but are told they know nothing,
while adults think in metaphors
just to make sense of something.

The easy metaphor
for what’s behind the gate
is Gatsby,
with his mysteries
and his majestic parties.
But what’s behind the gate is much truer
and rarer
than that:

When Your Students Give You Hope for Humanity

Or at least for feminism. The other day a bunch of my students were singing Let It Go.” “Why is everyone so into Frozen?” I asked (I haven’t seen it).

Because Ms. A,” Ayla said. “It’s about a girl who doesn’t have to get rescued by a guy!” I guess there is some controversy over whether or not Frozen is actually feminist, but the fact that Ayla perceived the lack of a damsel in distress as a great thing about the movie made me so happy. I’ve definitely been in college classes where grown men and women didn’t understand why a need even exists for movies about women with agency.

Another thing: I’ve been running a Journalism club this semester, and my students have been working on a newsletter with coverage of school shows and after-school activities. One seventh-grader wrote an opinion piece on why uniforms should be abolished. When I came across my boss today, who had been looking over the newsletter, she asked me if we could get anyone to write an opposing piece on why uniforms are good. I was doubtful; I had talked to students in my club about this, but none of them were in support of uniforms and I didn’t want to force them to write in defense of something they didn’t agree with just to appease my superiors. The point of Journalism club is to highlight the importance of students’ opinions, after all, not just adults’ opinions.

I had to check off attendance for a sixth-grade class, so I settled in at the lunch table with the attendance list on my right and the newsletter on my left. As I looked it over and thought about what I could do for the pro-uniform piece, a bunch of my students flung their backpacks down next to me and started giggling and jumping around and doing sixth-grade things. Usually I would have told them to sit down and chill out, but they had spent the day on state tests and I figured they needed to let loose during after-school.

“Ms. A, what you are looking at?” Ayla asked.

I handed her the newsletter and explained the dilemma. “Who do you think would want to write about the other side of this issue?” I asked.

“Oh!” Ayla started rummaging through her backpack. “I can do it. I mean, I wish we didn’t have uniforms, but I can see why we do.”

Other girls started to chime in. “They make school safer!” Leah exclaimed.

“We can express ourselves other ways,” Anna said as she braided another student’s hair.

Before I knew it, the girls were brainstorming the merits of uniforms while Ayla feverishly transcribed their opinions. By the end of the half-hour lunch period, they had come up with a three-paragraph essay, fit for publication, in defense of uniforms. I was dumbstruck; I had thought that they would be physically hyper and mentally fried after a day of ELA tests, but the entire class was eager to create a sound argument—topic sentences, supporting facts and all—for absolutely no grade, extra credit or test score. At least once a day, when they do something particularly sweet or awesome, I both wish they would stay exactly the same age forever, and wish I could flash-forward ten years and see what kind of amazing things they are achieving.