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Mad Men: Sally and Don in “A Little Kiss”

[ 19 ] March 26, 2012 |

(It goes without saying that this is another one of those posts.)

First of all, let me begin with what I won’t be talking about: race. It’s clearly going to be an abiding issue this season–it bookends “A Little Kiss,” first as an insensitive tragedy, later as an almost unmangeable farce–but the majority of what comes between these allusions to the Civil Rights movement concerns the demise of almost every relationship in the lives of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s employees. For example, here’s the sole appearance of the former Mrs. Draper:

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It occurs during the “Previously on Mad Men” introduction, not within the body of the show itself. The current Mrs. Francis exists in this episode as a function of her children, whose own screen time is limited to the first fifteen minutes of the episode–their appearance is significant, however, and as good a place as any to begin looking at “A Little Kiss.” Let’s start with Sally:

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She’s alone and miserable in a bed that’s not her own. The audience doesn’t know that, so she merely seems like a child who should have, but hasn’t, overcome her night terrors. (The therapy she began last season apparently either failed to take, was never followed up on, or became monopolized by Betty’s problems to the extent that the therapist thought she could help Sally more by working through Betty’s issues. Too soon to tell.) As I’ve remarked on multiple occasionsand even diagrammed–hallways are extremely significant on Mad Men, suggestive of the fact that these are shiftless people who are neither entirely sure where they’re from anymore (Draper) or that they’re trying to own the space between their amorphous origins and designated destinations. But as this episode makes clear on three occasions, this is nothing more than a convenient lie. Here is Draper owning a hallway in “The Suitcase”:

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Here’s Sally, half asleep in an unfamiliar apartment, “owning” hers:

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I don’t think I need to draw all over this shot to demonstrate that, like the one above it, there’s an operative symmetry to Jennifer Getzinger’s direction–nor do I think it’s unobvious that Getzinger directed both “The Suitcase” and “A Little Kiss.” But in “A Little Kiss” Getzinger undermines the symmetry from “The Suitcase” by having Sally saunter down the hall without occupying the central area of the screen. She doesn’t own this hall–she’s exploring it. When she finally (and mistakenly) believes she’s found her bearings:

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She finds the bathroom door locked. Because it’s not the bathroom door:

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It’s her father’s bedroom, and despite Sally and Don being neatly framed between the door jambs, they still don’t occupy the central area of the screen. Technically, nothing does, but scan down and the audience can see what Sally shortly will, only not from her perspective yet–the small of Megan’s back and the curve of her hips. Something is coming between Draper and the only woman he loves unconditionally, and Sally can see that something’s ass:

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This is one of the rare moments in the episode when the audience is allowed into the head of a character, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s Sally’s head into which we’re allowed entrance. I have a feeling–something more like an inchoate theory–that ten years from now this show will be remembered as having belonged to Sally, but I’ll share that when I can muster up more evidence. For the moment the real matter of significance is that Sally perceives Megan as the single greatest impediment to developing the relationship she so desperately desires with her father. She recognizes, without truly understanding it, that there’s a disconnect, and Getzinger highlights this not merely by showing the a vulnerably half-naked Megan, but by indicating that Sally can’t tell whether it’s the woman in the bedroom or the bedroom door that’s frustrating her:

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That door jamb is the visual equivalent of a poetic enjambment, uniting two lines in manner that foregrounds the fact that they ought not be united. A quick example from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium“:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress [...]

The enjambed “unless” functions as a redirected thought dangling off the edge of an unthinkable abyss–the moment when an “aged” Yeats decides unequivocably that this is “no country for old men,” but despite the apparent abruptness of his decision, the tranistion from the enjambed “unless” and the “soul” which opens the next line creates a hope for some sort of continuity. Just read it aloud: “unless/Soul clap its hand and sing.” Possibility abides despite the apparent disconnect. Unlike many other moments in this episode, the ostensible disconnect between this daughter and this father seems surmountable. She just doesn’t know it yet.*

But she should: Draper concludes this conversation with an offer to cook her one of his patented witching hour omelets, a process which began when the dark was deep and the shadows long and ended right about here:

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The implied elapse of time is clearly significant, as the two characters occupying the central frame have obviously been awake and ostensibly been conversing for quite some time. But their centrality isn’t the item of significance in this frame: in the lower left corner of the shot is the footstool on which Draper will be sitting at the height of his humiliation, which will, of course, be brought about by:

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The woman wearing the gawdy yellow top who’s not only occupying the center of the screen, but is doing so by visually dividing Sally and Don. Sally’s point-of-view shot earlier set this up, and it leads to a shot in which her worst fears are being realized. Getzinger cuts to Sally:

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Although seemingly happy, it’s what she’s not that’s significant: she’s not sharing the frame with her father anymore. She’s alone and off-center–and there’s a good reason that the shot’s off-kiltered. Look at what she sees:

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Her father and Megan are one side of a walled-in nook, she and her siblings on the other. Moreover, whereas Megan and her attention-grabbing shirt are inching closer to a central position, Sally’s almost being pushed off-frame. Don’s not consciously aware of what he’s losing, but losing her he is. Because this is such a long episode, I’ll save my thoughts about Peter and Peggy and Joan for another post, but before I do, I just want to follow up on the significance of the aforementioned table. Here’s Don at his “surprise” birthday party:

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The nook is now off-camera and Don’s literally dominating the shot: even the color of his shirt sets him apart from the dark dresses and suits of his guests. But with the footstool now center-stage, Draper is at his emptiest. He is alone and all eyes are upon him, uncomfortably astride a piece of furniture designed for feet, and he’s miserable. He’ll sleep alone tonight because he realizes that whatever it is he has with Megan, it’s not enough–and the more she tries to convince him otherwise, the further he pushes her away.

*Before you ask: I can’t believe I just wrote that much about a door jamb either.

Comments (19)

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  1. Here’s what I wrote over at The Kugelmass Episodes:

    Scott’s posted his take on the episode…It’s great, in that we somehow manage to cover almost none of the same material, and it’s also great because Scott has an uncanny ability to recreate and explain the theory behind the direction. His analysis of Sally’s perspective is a tour-de-force. I guess I would say that the episode feels smart to me, and rewards rhetorical analysis, but it doesn’t feel glamorous. Mad Men needs to be both. Otherwise it can’t get away with its crimes against our modern sensibilities.

    You make a great case for Sally as the surprise protagonist of the show. The problem is that she’s never going to be old enough to write copy (at least, not more than once or twice in special episodes), and the show’s depiction of the creative process has always been a big part of its appeal.

    Did you read Sloane Crosley’s piece in Esquire? It’s mostly plot summary, but she does point out that maybe Sally’s gaze is a desiring one.

    The rest of my post is here.

    • SEK says:

      It’s great, in that we somehow manage to cover almost none of the same material…

      This despite the fact that we spent three hours discussing this episode last night. To paraphrase David Byrne: it’s like we’re talking, but we’re not saying anything.

      Seriously though, will respond to your post — and Crosley’s, which I think, go figure, is a little too Freudian for my tastes — in the one I’ve got slated for tomorrow.

  2. Ben Hosen says:

    SEK, I know little about visual rhetoric and used to care even less… but those posts have been very interesting over the years, even to my ignorant ass.

    (LGM: Come for the warships, labor history and airpower, stay for all the other excellent content!)

  3. Jake Moore says:

    I take issue with you characterization of non-central character placement within frames as “strange” and “significant.” Sally isn’t “off-kiltered”– she’s obeying the rule of thirds, in a power position.

  4. JREinATL says:

    I had a much different read on this scene, as I viewed the audience as the principal “character” in it. Given Matt Weiner’s obsessive secrecy, as the scene unfolds, the audience doesn’t (shouldn’t) know when or where the scene is taking place, or whether Sally is at her mother’s or father’s.

    Everything about Sally’s trip to Don’s room is about teasing out this reveal, and not coincidentally, the first shot we see of Don (as I recall it, anyway) was not the frontal shot of him above, but a shot from behind that just barely shows his left side that teases out for an extra few frames exactly who Sally has come to see. Sally’s POV of Megan is also our POV, as the audience doesn’t know until that moment whether Don actually went through with his marriage proposal.

    I’m going to reserve any conclusions as Sally’s mental state and her feelings toward Don & Megan until a few more episodes into the season.

    • SEK says:

      The problem with writing these in the moment is I can only work with what I’m given and have to keep my hunches to the side. But to my cards on the table, I think Sally’s going to reap the benefits of the life Peggy fought for, and that this’ll become more apparent as this (and next) season progresses. Narratively, that seems to me where they’re headed … but I’m more than happy to be wrong, as that’d entail a pleasant surprise.

  5. nitpicker says:

    Sorry, but I think this show is owned by Peggy.

    • SEK says:

      “This” show certainly isn’t. A case can be made for Joan, whose reappearance created a sense of calm and order that belies her adultery, but the way the other characters reacted to her and her child, I think there’s a case to be made. But Peggy? She was desperately attempting to ingratiate herself with the new Mrs. Draper, which is 1) un-Peggy-like and 2) given Don’s relationship with Megan, a failed ploy from the get-go.

  6. SEK says:

    Eight comments, seventy-six likes, twenty-two tweets and thirteen shares. I must be doing something right.

  7. Emmaddy says:

    Sally is the most fascinating character on Mad Men. I always find myself wondering what she’ll think of her father when she’s grown up.

  8. Very interesting. I don’t know enough about film to really comment beyond the fact that this episode was my first experience of Mad Men and I now see what all the buzz is about.

    On a tangent- a friend of mine read your post and remarked that they doubt that THAT much thought really goes into it. I disagree, but I’m sure you must hear that sort of sentiment all the time and I’m just curious how you usually respond.

    • SEK says:

      Your friend’s wrong. John Rogers — the showrunner of Leverage — can add to anything I’ve forgotten, but keep in mind that all of the following people must be paid, have their equipment plugged in, eat, etc., and remember as your friend’s scrolling down that very, very long list there are a number of unusual positions, such as:

      1. hair stylist/background hair stylist
      2. hair stylist/key hair stylist
      3. hair department head
      4. special effects makup artist
      5. on-set dresser
      6. art department coordinator
      7. greesman
      8. set decoration buyer
      9. second assistant camera “a” cameria/ second assistant camera “b” camera
      10. best boy rigging electrician
      11. genny operator
      12. post-post production assistant coordinator
      13. colorist dailies
      14. final colorist

      I’ve chosen that list a little randomly, but it’s also a little representative of the collaborate work involved in any significant production. Odd as it may seem, the burden of proof that something isn’t in a particular scene should fall to the casual viewer, who thinks television is magic and all you need is a camera, some costumes, and a few pretty pictures to make it work. Granted, that’s true of some reality television — it wear its cheap production for all to see — but for quality, scripted television, each minute of which costs thousands to film, there’s a reason why certain mediocre actors are come to be called “character actors” as they age. It’s not that Benjamin Bratt — and I’m not picking on him — is a good actor, but there’s a reason why people want to work with him. To my knowledge, he’s polite, shows up on time, knows his lines, and is forgo having a potentially short or taller stand-in sit for him in the rehearsals and run-throughs. (That’s anecdotal evidence, but I trust the source, and if I’m wrong, there are a million others I could substitute for him.) Point being:

      Shooting quality film/television is very expensive, so it’s all planned out in advance, then modified, script-color-change-by-script-color-change, then ideally handed to actors who behave professionally. In short, the implicit answer to why there aren’t more great television shows is sort of the same as why they aren’t more perfect storms.

  9. [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}My promised follow up post about Peter’s sad descent into the trappings of Draper’s life is nearly half-complete, [...]

  10. [...] weeks of the Mad Men season for me to celebrate the things that make the show great–the meticulously constructed mise en scene, the psychological insight, Peggy Olson, the awesome fan creations, [...]

  11. [...] weeks of the Mad Men season for me to celebrate the things that make the show great–the meticulously constructed mise en scene, the psychological insight, Peggy Olson, the awesome fan creations, [...]

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