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Mad Men: Fencing with shadows over “The Quality of Mercy”

[ 47 ] June 20, 2013 |

I keep on reading that the title of this season’s penultimate Mad Men episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” is “a phrase from Shakespeare” without any explanation as to what its significance might be. Todd’s the exception, but his account of the play muddies his most pressing insight: one only appeals to the quality of mercy when dealing with people who don’t deserve it because one wants it from that very same person. It exists only as a rhetorical tactic. But it doesn’t work quite that way anymore. For contemporary audiences the quality of mercy is something granted through extra-textual means — the play’s antisemitism retroactively grants it to Shylock — which is another way of saying that characters exist in history and shouldn’t be judged by their actions in the moment so much as their reputation over the not-so-longue durée. This excuses nothing:

Shylock behaves like a stock Jew because Shakespeare didn’t think his character worth elevating. The same can’t be said of Don Draper in a season in which his status as an unknown quantity’s been highlighted by the presence of fellow professional liar Bob Benson. Or can it? The last two episodes have seen him turn against his wife (Megan) and his protege (Peggy) for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but clearly aren’t merciful. And yet the arrival of Benson mingles with his failing marriage and office foibles in a manner that makes him seem deserving of the mercy Shylock wanted to refuse Antonio. That mercy would’ve denied Shylock his “pound of flesh.” Care to guess who we are in this analogy?

That’s correct: we’re Shylock demanding a pound of Draper’s flesh and we’re the contemporary audience extending him mercy because we know that Shylock’s been misunderstood by history. Which is about where we stand at this point in the series: Draper’s a tragic figure made all the more tragic by the decisions he’s making. He’s an unforgivable human being widely recognized as a product of his circumstances. He’s the man everyone envies until they see his substance is little more than strategically placed shadows — particularly in this episode. But before I comment on that I should note how this episode begins:

With Draper in the fetal position. I’m not going to go all Freudian on you because I don’t do that anymore. What’s more significant than any Freudian overtones is that this is the first time in this episode that one side of Draper’s face is hidden from the camera. That Phil Abraham went with an overhead shot in order to accomplish that is a telling oddity: we don’t normally see shots from this perspective outside of the opening credits. Make of that what you will. What I find significant is that the opening shot of the episode 1) informs us that Don’s wounded and 2) suggests that he’s hiding his wound by hiding his face. I know this isn’t actually true — you can’t hide psychological scars behind turned heads or well-positioned shadows — but consider how the rest of the episode is shot. Here’s Don pouring orange juice:

Abraham’s clearly taking advantage of the “natural” light streaming in the set’s windows — it’s most likely a key light — but it’s all coming from frame-right.  If you imagine Jon Hamm’s standing in the center of a clock facing 12 o’clock, it appears as if there’s a key light with a diffuser of some sort around 9 o’clock. If there weren’t a diffuser of some sort the contrast would be harsher and it would look more noir — but the shot’s not that flat, as we can see light gently reflecting off the cupboards behind him. What’s missing is some sort of fill light at 2 o’clock to illuminate Hamm’s face. Why’s it missing? Because Abraham wanted him to look “shady” without seeming Manichean. That’s why the diffuser’s significant: it prevents the contrast from being harsh and turning Draper into an anti-heroic image of stock-noir. The conflict in most noir films being, of course, that Humphrey Bogart’s trying to apply his black-and-white code of right and wrong to a grey world. Draper’s conflict, of course, is that he has no code to apply to an increasingly colorful world, so it stands to reason that Abraham wouldn’t shoot him so harshly. Especially when he’s pouring orange juice. But what about when he’s pouring vodka into the orange juice?

Nope. That’s the same key light. Hamm’s just turned around so now the other side of his face is shaded. Not completely, though, because as noted there’s some light reflecting off the cupboards that’s preventing the entirety of the left side of his face from being in darkness. There’s clearly something wrong with him in these shots: it’s not that Draper’s drinking in the morning, but that he’s hiding drinking in the morning. Even the functional alcoholic occasionally needs a day off to drink inappropriately — not that I speak from experience. But that’s clearly what’s happening here: more of the same only slightly different. But it doesn’t get any better as the scene progresses:

As soon as he turns around he may as well not have: he’s not bathed in the radiance of the same missing fill light. Maybe it’ll improve once he stops celebrating Screwdriver Appreciation Day and shows up for work?

It’s dogging him. I know shadows can’t actually dog people and that it’s all about strategically placed lights but if I didn’t know any better I’d say this shadow was dogging him. Because rhetorically it is. In terms of its effect on the audience this shadow has been plastered to a side of his face since the moment he woke up in the fetal position trying to hide it from the camera in that overhead shot. It dissipates some in the meeting in which he “saves” Peggy by attributing her idea to the dear and recently departed:

It’s not nearly so extreme here, which makes sense, because Draper’s in his element. If the producers are manifesting his demons as shadows, it’s understandable that they’d be less prominent in the one place Draper still feels somewhat comfortable. But the lighting’s still working against Hamm: there’s a fill light illuminating most of him, but it seems more designed to highlight the drawings of Peggy’s Rosemary’s Baby-inspired children’s aspirin ad. He’s catching the light incidentally and Draper’s not a character often filmed in reflected glory. But here he is. I don’t have any inside knowledge about why he keeps his head canted throughout this scene, but I can say that the effect echoes the shadowing from earlier in the episode. He’s fighting the lights to spite his face here, and I don’t think that’s unintentional. Especially not considering his conversation after the meeting:

And this one’s the give-away. This shot shouts the director’s intent loud as subtitles: he’s determined to create shadows on Hamm’s face even if it requires off-lighting it very brightly. That glare on the right side of his head is the unfortunate side-effect of burying the rest of his face beneath shadow in what is, otherwise, a very bright room. I’m not sure what the thematic function of this shadow is — I’m wary of explanations of characters that rely too heavily on how they’re being presented by individual directors — but there has to be one. I mean:

There has to be one. It’s extremely difficult to create that sort of contrast — diffused or otherwise — in such well-lit spaces. I’d praise the dedicated crew responsible for creating this effect if I knew what their names were, because they deserve praise for creating this impression of a Don dogged by something. I could be glib and say it’s history generally, or his personal history, or his night with Betty, or his non-nights with Megan, but I’d rather let the show tell me which of those is bothering him. Apparently it’s the latter:

Whatever his problem is, the visual structure of the episode is relating it back to Megan. He ends this episode as he began it: in the fetal position sleeping with Megan’s significant absence.

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  • SEK

    I condensed quite a bit of Shakespeare into that opening paragraph, so as not to bore you too much with literary theory, but if you’d like me to, um, flesh it out — sorry, sorry — I’m more than happy to.

    • sharculese

      I had the benefit of T VdW always being the first place I go after watching new Mad Men, but thanks for fleshing out the meaning some more.

      Glad these posts are back, I take it that means AMC’s being a little nicer about it?

      • SEK

        Testing the waters.

        And Todd’s a great place to start. He’s the, let’s say, “outspoken advocate” in my potentially new venture, as well he should be, since it was his idea. (crosses fingers)

        • sharculese

          Fingers crossed. The first post you sent me was very good, and conveniently timed, since we got new information about Abigail right when I read it.

          • SEK

            Increasing obsolescence is becoming a bit of a concern, but given that they’re supposed to be introductory lessons and I use Godfather II in it, I’m sure it’ll hold up. That, or I’ll re-write it all to suit Breaking Bad, which as you well know, I’ll totally mind doing.

            • sharculese

              The time gap wouldn’t bother me at least. I feel like there’s enough to the show that I plan to go back and do some close rewatching once we find out where everything is headed.

    • How long have you been waiting to use that line?

      • SEK

        Less than a week?

        • Me, I’m always looking for a chance to use, “My friends all drive Portias, I must make amends.” The song’s really a gold mine for bad multilingual puns.

          • rea

            “The quality of mercy is not strained,
            Mercy is rather lumpy.”

    • rea

      Well, Shylock does get mercy, although he hadn’t been willing to grant it himself a few minutes earlier (he doesn’t get hung, and gets to keep half his fortune, on the condition that he converts). And Portia isn’t really asking Shylock for mercy–she’s the judge, and has already figured out how to decide the case against Shylock, if he doesn’t do what she asks. (Generally speaking, when the judge advises you to take a settlement before he rules, you ought to do what the judge asks).

      • Ian

        Well, I don’t know. It’s directly after the “quality of mercy” speech failing to move Shylock that Portia asks to read the bond. I would peg that as her “aha” moment–which makes her subsequent appeals to his mercy especially double-edged: she’s both encouraging him to do what would be best and, since she knows he won’t do it, letting him dig his own grave, since what really matters is not the pound of flesh riddle but his murderous designs on Antonio.

        Incidentally, I bridle at the idea that “Shylock behaves like a stock Jew because Shakespeare didn’t think his character worth elevating.” Many, many readers have felt otherwise. (See, for example, Kenneth Gross’s Shylock is Shakespeare).

        • rea

          It’s directly after the “quality of mercy” speech failing to move Shylock that Portia asks to read the bond

          Portia had already set this up in advance with a famous lawyer, Bellario, who gives her the letteer of recommentdation that induces the Duke to let her act in the case. The technical defense she advances does not depend heavily on the language of the band (other than to note that it involved a pound of flesh, not a pound of flesh and blood). She’s either knowlegable or well-briefed in the applicable law. Maybe it’s my modern lawyering experience misleading me, but it’s hard to believe that she inserted herself ino the proceedings without a plan for saving Antonio.

          • Ian

            Portia (and Bellario’s letter) says that she’s well acquainted with “the cause,” but I see no reason to imagine that she’s seen the specific language of the bond before this. And the technical response depends on the specific language. I can accept that she and Bellario may have cooked up the other response ahead of time, though.

            As for her plan for saving Antonio–she’s an improvisor, much like Bassanio.

      • jeer9

        Portia is not the judge in this case. The Duke of Venice is. Portia is acting as additional legal counsel for Antonio in an attempt to help her betrothed’s (Bassanio’s) best friend out of what appears to be a clear and irrefutable legal claim. The Duke has every intention of siding with Shylock, even after he sneers at Portia’s quality of mercy speech, until Portia/Balthazar do a closer reading of the contract and point out that no blood can be drawn and the pound of flesh must be exactly that, no more or less.

        An interesting side note to the pound of flesh component in the play’s plot is its similarity to the story of “Sibi” in The Mahabharata. A remarkable coincidence or just another example of the Bard’s inveterate purloining of source material? How do so many of the texts he borrows from, a number of them in foreign languages and several not translated into English during his lifetime, become accessible to him? He must have picked up the odd stray tongue while drinking pints at The Cock and Bull Tavern.

        • rea

          Portia is the judge:

          PORTIA
          Why, this bond is forfeit;
          And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
          A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
          Nearest the merchant’s heart. Be merciful:
          Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond.

          SHYLOCK
          When it is paid according to the tenor.
          It doth appear you are a worthy judge;
          You know the law, your exposition
          Hath been most sound: I charge you by the law,
          Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
          Proceed to judgment: by my soul I swear
          There is no power in the tongue of man
          To alter me: I stay here on my bond.

          ANTONIO
          Most heartily I do beseech the court
          To give the judgment.

          PORTIA
          Why then, thus it is:
          You must prepare your bosom for his knife.

          SHYLOCK
          O noble judge! O excellent young man!

          PORTIA
          For the intent and purpose of the law
          Hath full relation to the penalty,
          Which here appeareth due upon the bond.

          SHYLOCK
          ‘Tis very true: O wise and upright judge!
          How much more elder art thou than thy looks!

          And many more references. . .

          • rea

            And by way of explanation:, earlier:

            DUKE
            Upon my power I may dismiss this court,
            Unless Bellario, a learned doctor,
            Whom I have sent for to determine this,
            Come here to-day.

            SALERIO
            My lord, here stays without
            A messenger with letters from the doctor,
            New come from Padua.

            But Portia has already sent her trusted servent to Padua, and gotten Bellario’s cooperation–she shows up as the messenger, with a letter of recomendation from Bellario to persuade the Duke to have her act as judge while Bellario is out sick.

          • jeer9

            Rea,
            It is true that not only Shylock but Gratiano repeatedly address Portia in disguise as a judge. But before that, when Shylock refuses the Duke’s plea for mercy and demands a judgement, the Duke replies with: “Upon my powers I may dismiss this court, unless Bellario, a learned doctor whom I have sent for to determine this, come here today.”

            We then meet Nerissa, Portia’s maid, who is dressed as a lawyer’s clerk. A letter from Bellario is shortly read aloud which states: “I am very sick; but in the instant that your messenger came, in loving visitation was with me a young doctor of Rome; his name is Balthazar: I acquainted him with the cause in controversy between the Jew and Antonio the merchant; we turned o’er many books together; he is furnished with my opinion …”

            Portia then recites her quality of mercy speech which Shylock also refuses before Bassanio implores her “to curb this cruel devil of his will.” She responds by saying: “It must not be; there is no power in Venice can alter a decree established: ’twill be recorded for a precedent and many an error, by the same example, will rush into the state. It cannot be.”

            She then takes apart the contract and applies it to Venetian law whereupon the Duke declares: “Thou shalt see the difference of our spirit; I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it: for half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s; the other half comes to the general state, which humbleness may drive into a fine.”

            Antonio then introduces his preferred settlement with the phrase: “So please my lord the duke …”
            The Duke responds: “He shall do this; or else I do recant the pardon that I late pronounced here.”

            IANAL, but it has always seemed to me that judges (or in this case, aristocrats bearing the responsibilities of the state) are empowered to listen to opinions and then enforce the law. Portia has employed some powerful rhetorical strategies which failed and then provided a compelling interpretation which the Duke then felt justified in accepting.

  • Immanuel Kant

    I don’t understand your analogy to the play. Is Don Antonio or is he Shylock?

    • SEK

      Don’s both Shylocks: he’s the despicable stock character and the one whose offenses are mitigated by historical circumstance. And, of course, we’re Shylock too, wanting Don’s pound of flesh and trifling over technicalities.

  • Sorry to go O/T here, but did you do a podcast on the GoT season 3 Finale and I missed it?

    • SEK

      No, we’re doing that this afternoon. I’ve been busy with finals and wrapping things up in Irvine, so it’s taken longer than usual. I’m about to re-watch the episode right now, actually.

      • Cool!

        Looking forward to it.

      • David Hunt

        I’m also looking forward to it. I really enjoy them. Although I figured that Real Life had delayed/prevented the recording of this one, I’ll admit to having a certain odd/whimsical thought. To wit: “Hmmm, maybe their actual schedule is to try to get it done just before the next episode instead within a week after the previous one. That would mean waiting a lonnnnng time for this one.”

        I am now gong to take a moment to explicitly state that you and Steve doing those things, while appreciated, is not something I’m enough of a prick to feel entitled to. I once caught myself being annoyed that John Rogers didn’t really get around to answering the hundreds of questions about Leverage episodes that people placed in the posts that he set up for that purpose before I remembered that he was doing us a favor and that he had other things to deal with: like making the actual show. Plus he might have felt like he deserved to live something like hobbies and a family life. I don’t think I ever even posted a joking comment about delays because I didn’t want to give the impression that he was taking too long to do us a favor. Hence this long winded explanation: seriously, just thanks for doing those podcasts whenever you guys feel like doing them.

        • Cody

          Damn. I have to go watch Leverage again now.

          Wonder how many seasons are on Netflix that I haven’t seen…

        • SEK

          “Hmmm, maybe their actual schedule is to try to get it done just before the next episode instead within a week after the previous one. That would mean waiting a lonnnnng time for this one.”

          Nope, it’s just finals week at UCI, so I’ve been swamped with drafts/revised drafts/grading revisions. Once we’re done with this season, we’re going to loop back to the beginning and work our way back through the first two. That’ll all happen this summer, and on a regular basis, given that we have less to do.

          I once caught myself being annoyed that John Rogers didn’t really get around to answering the hundreds of questions about Leverage episodes that people placed in the posts that he set up for that purpose before I remembered that he was doing us a favor and that he had other things to deal with: like making the actual show.

          I know! I’m annoyed when it takes him a week to respond to an email, then I remember he has hundreds of other questions and a television show. (I’m being serious here, since he’s one of my sources for how shows work, I sometimes have what seem like very pressing questions that must be answered now already, damn it.)

  • Todd

    Interesting Shylock(mercy) reading.

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that Ken Cosgrove represents Matthew Weiner in his life as a writer before getting this show. I always thought it was Peggy.

    • SEK

      All writers, at one point in their lives, feel like they made a mistake hunting with Dick Cheney.

      • SEK

        But in all seriousness, I still think it’s Peggy, not Cosgrove. Ken’s too successful to stand-in for Weiner’s earlier career: published in The New Yorker, etc. Plus, everyone likes to imagine themselves as every Republican does: they’re self-made, from nothing — less than nothing, from the shit beneath it that nothing spits on …

        • TribalistMeathead

          Well, the last sentence certainly jibes with Grantland’s theory that Don’s “That’s what the money is for!” statement was a message to Weiner’s writing staff…

      • The Grateful Dead song “Throwing Stones” is actually about the songwriter’s attempt to work on some environmental issue with Cheney back in the 80s. This is a reminder to write that story up.

        • SEK

          While we chat in Facebook in one window, in the other, I assign you work. I like our relationship, slave.

          • sharculese

            Paula, is that you?!?

            • Uncle Ebeneezer

              Or James Taranto!

    • Todd

      It’s close, but Ken’s inability to handle the violence inherit in working the Chevy account pushed me over the edge, as all I could think of was Weiner trying to argue for one less garroting in the Sopranos’ next episode.

      It’s probably both Peggy and Ken. Weiner contains multitudes. Maybe the tipping point will be which of them bolts SC&Whatever first.

  • Liam

    I don’t think it’s Megan; it’s his previous rejection by Sally in the preceeding episode that put him in the fetal position at the start of the episode and his rejection by Peggy (“You’re a monster!”) that puts him right back there. Immediately.

    • SEK

      Damn it, stop stealing my punchlines:

      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.

      Point being, I agree with you, and was getting there, ya bastard.

      • Liam

        Peggy, too- it seems like the show is drawing paralells between Don’s relationships with two the two of them; he wants to be loved by them (just ask the Yijing) but can’t help fucking it up, IMO because he gets bored with stable relationships and always starts to “need more hapiness”.

        • Liam

          I meant ha’penis.

          • Hogan

            “For your information I wake up every morning with an angry blue-veined diamond cutter. I was gonna enlighten the president of Local 47 on this particular point and he chose to depart. Blue steel, gentlemen, 3 & 1/2 inches of hard blue steel.”

        • SEK

          I know you didn’t, but honestly, that’s why I think Sally’s at the show’s center. She’s the one relationship with a woman that he can’t get bored with, and doesn’t, merely frustrated or annoyed at times, but he can’t quit her. Because unlike every other woman in his life … she’s his kid. And he’s determined, if nothing else, to try to be a better father to his kids than his was to him. He’s in a similar situation with Peggy, sans sexual attraction, wanting to help her for his own sake. In the end, I think Don will have been someone who’s better than he thought he was, but Shylockian in our ability to judge him. Which is the tension I was pointing out in the post.

  • Trollhattan

    that’s why I think Sally’s at the show’s center.

    I’d suppressed this thought for a long while but this episode pried the box wide open. We learned so much about Sally—her many relationships, her ability to turn hostility into support and her skill at having others do her bidding (very, very Don-like). Despite everything else occurring—and there was a lot—Sally was the pivot around whom the episode revolved.

  • Joseph Nobles

    Would it be cool to share guesses on how the show ends this season? I have three.

    • SEK

      Spit it out!

      • Joseph Nobles

        OK, then! I have three operative hypotheses for the final episode. Two are related.

        1) The Godfather II ending: Don discovers that Megan had an abortion to protect her career without telling him. (Sharon Tate was pregnant, remember?) But Don’s reaction will be 180 degrees from what he told Peggy about her pregnancy in Season 1. He might even tell her about Sylvia out of spite.

        2) Endgame with the Rosens

        a) This one has been my guess most of the season. It’s no longer my favorite. Don has a heart attack, and Rosen comes to the operating table having learned of the affair. Does he take his pound of flesh or not? Well, he couldn’t – there is going to be a season 7, right?

        b) This one’s my current favorite. Rosen learns of the affair and kills Sylvia in a fit of rage. He’s arrested and taken away before anyone in the building learns Don was the other party. Only Sally knows the truth. And she alone sees his misery, and she forgives him.

        But I tell you, the way that back access door in the Drapers’ apartment parallels the closet door in Rosemary’s Baby? That has been creeping me out for a while.

        • Joseph Nobles

          OK, I thought I’d revisit this to accept how wrong I was. My only consolation is that I was emotionally right about a couple of things. 1 – Don and Megan are over. 2 – the season ended with Sally reconsidering her rejection of Don.

          And though I didn’t say it here, I did search through the events of November 1968 and then cheekily predicted on Twitter than Pete’s mom and Manolo would be aboard the Pan Am plane that was hijacked to Cuba in the early part of the month. Emotionally right again!

          And I want a Sterling Cooper & Partners coffee mug. Damn product placement!

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