Home / General / <em>Mad Men</em>: Disappointment “In Care Of” Convention

Mad Men: Disappointment “In Care Of” Convention

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In my previous post on “In Care Of,” I defined an “Oh Really” sequence as as structure of escalating exchanges that requires no dialogue to be understood. What I didn’t say — but which should make perfect sense in retrospect — is that such sequences are most often found in the saloons of classic American Westerns. Just consider what would happen to that scene if you put Don in a ridiculously large cowboy hat:

Don didn’t need to take off his hat to inform us of impending violence: the structure of the shots and reverse shots is so familiar that the context of the scene matters more than the content. Two men being filmed in this manner in a “saloon” inevitably leads to fisticuffs and gun play. The logic of the escalation is “drunkenly disproportionate” even if neither of the parties involved is actually drunk. Because we know how this scene ends, Weiner need not actually show Don striking the minister. But we want him to. The tension mounts but Weiner provides no release — instead he relies on our familiarity with this sequence to cut to a flashback, because he knows we’ll only be momentarily confused. He effectively holds that tension in abeyance throughout the flashback, but instead of relieving it by cutting back to the scene at the bar like we want him to, he suspends it in perpetuity by moving the narrative a few hours forward in time:

All of which is only to say that Weiner’s playing with the conventions of the “Oh Really” sequence in order to frustrate the the expectations of his audience. You may not have consciously recognized the structure of the scene when you watched “In Care Of,” but years of experience watching films and television conditioned you to be disappointed by its result. As well you should be. The entire episode’s structured around disappointment: from the title that doesn’t specify who or what’s “In Care Of” to Don and Ted’s respective beliefs about their prospects in New York; or from the firm’s feelings about Don’s recent performance to Peggy’s about the end of her relationship with Ted and the insult that is her temporary “promotion.” Weiner so wants us to be disappointed that — like the bar from the first episode of this season — he rewrites the most triumphant scene from the first season: Don’s presentation in “The Wheel.”

It’s not just the classic Draper pitch scene: its central concerns are creating a “sentimental bond with a product” via “nostalgia,” which is the same tactic Don uses to approach Hershey. But at that time Don’s life intruded into his presentation because he deliberately put it there. He was simply surprised by the results. As I wrote:

Don’s in a redoubled-blind here: he loathes Betty, but must pretend to love her for the Eastman Kodak people; but as he’s pretending to love her, he genuinely feels the nostalgia he thinks the Carousel will mass-produce; but because he’s in the middle of a pitch, he has to hide the fact that his appeals to nostalgia are working on him as powerfully as they are on everyone else […] Don’s trying, but failing, not to buy his own shtick here.

But this Don isn’t that Don. This Don knows he’s selling Hershey a shtick and he’s not buying it. He has absolutely no sentimental attachment to its elements and it shows in his performance. Here’s the first half of Don’s pitch in “The Wheel”:

You can read the original post for why I compiled those images, but for now all that matters is the manner in which Weiner shot Draper during the Eastman Kodak presentation. It’s a single medium close-up on Don’s professional head as he’s unprofessionally moved by his own presentation. The steadiness of that medium close-up is indicative of a man who’s losing his shit with dignity. Not so with the Hershey presentation:

Gone is the stolid medium close-up. In its place is a medium shot of a man who’s losing his shit in front an image of a giant metaphor for it. The reason for the medium shot here is not only to capture his manic action — he decided not to drink before the meeting — but also his instability:

Not only is he not dominating the shot — Ted’s unfocused head prevents that — but he’s using the chair for support. The medium shot allows us to see the unnatural arch of his hand and bend of his elbow, but more importantly it forces Jon Hamm to sell his smile in a grossly exaggerated fashion. His initial pitch to Hershey is as fake as that smile, and in seasons past, that wouldn’t have bothered him so long as the client bought it. And Hershey buys it. It’s a testament to his talent — a real victory for the man he wants to become — and for a moment Weiner reminds us of this visually with a near clone of the medium close-up from “The Wheel”:

Except there are still differences. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say that in “The Wheel” he leans forward, toward the camera, dominating the screen; whereas in this episode, he leans back, attempting to appear like he doesn’t need the chair for support. Except he does. It’s important to note that at this moment, neither the audience in the room nor the one watching at home is meant to disappointed with Don’s performance. If anything it’s a more triumphant moment than the one in “The Wheel” because it’s more hard-earned. The only person who’s disappointed is Don. He’s failed to fall for his own shtick. He hasn’t been moved by his own presentation. So he attempts to recreate the circumstances of “The Wheel,” to move himself via actual nostalgia instead of manufactured narrative:

I’m sorry, I have to say this, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania. In a whore house […] I read that some orphans had a different life in [Hershey]. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Being wanted. Closest I felt to being wanted was from a girl who made me go through her johns wallets while they screwed. When I collected more than a dollar she’d buy me a Hershey bar. And I would it eat it. Alone. In my room. With great ceremony. Feeling like a normal kid. It said “sweet” on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.

What’s unnerving about Don’s confession isn’t merely its context, which is captured neatly by this long shot in which we sit at the table with the other horrified onlookers:

What’s unnerving is that it’s the opposite of the “Oh Really” sequence, in which if we’re given the context, the content is immaterial. The content is all that matters. You can’t substitute other content into this context and produce the same result. Here Weiner’s playing with the show’s own conventions, not one of film generally, but he’s doing so for the same reason: to limit the audience’s ability to vicariously share in Don’s triumph. Except this time it’s the specific content of a specific moment that leads to our disappointment. By taking a different route to the same destination, Weiner’s preventing us from becoming complacent in our disappointment — every time we think we’ve become immune to its sting, he finds another way to make the pain feel fresh again.

All of which is setting the final moments of the episode in relief, as I’ll discuss in my next post.

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