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Mad Men: Who’s “In Care Of” what now?

[ 45 ] July 8, 2013 |

(This is obviously one of my visual rhetoric posts, all of which can be found here.)

In my first post on “In Care Of,” I discussed the importance of the logic of the “Oh Really” sequence to the episode; in the second, I not only proved that cowboy hats aren’t the new lasers, but also that Matthew Weiner is dedicated to creating pain by any means necessary, including undermining the importance of structural elements like the “Oh Really” sequence. In other words, my first two posts were about how Weiner creates tension via the visuals and sustains it by undermining the visuals that created it via the narrative. Most television shows — and most television writers — have a particular set of visual and narrative crutches they break out when they need to rouse their viewers. For example, Joss Whedon favors hackneyed speeches undermined by immediate circumstances:

BUFFY: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you — do you think I chose to be like this? You have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or — God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.

Or:

LOKI: Enough! You are, all of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by –

(HULK flattens LOKI by SMASH)

Whenever one of Whedon’s characters starts to speechify like William Wallace pontificating about the theoretical possibility of Scottish independence, that character’s likely to find his or her authority undermined either by their own words or someone else’s actions.* Whedon telegraphs it to a man who proceeds to semaphore it at your face. Which is why Mad Men continues to make for compelling television: Weiner and his writers are clearly aware of how they’re manipulating us and, like a great boxer, always slug us where we’re not expecting. Especially when they’ve established those expectations in a particular episode. In the last scene of this one, he combines the “Oh Really” sequence with its content-dependent and confessional opposite. To wit:

He opens with this long shot of the Draper/Whitman family. They’re all clearly staring up at something, and because of the extremely high angle, seem to be dominated by whatever that something is. Establishing that something’s doing the dominating before actually showing it on screen has two effects: the first is to rouse our curiosity; the second, to remind us of what’s become obvious by now, i.e. that this family’s been burdened by an unknown and unspoken something for quite some time. Of course Don knows what it is, but to Sally, in particular, there’s just been this horrible presence that’s tainted her father’s relationships with everyone. She has no idea what it is, but this shot’s telling you here it is. But before cutting to this looming presence, Weiner thinks we need a refresher on how close this family is at the moment:

These are the children. They’re together, but:

They’re also apart from Don. Each slightly encroaches into the others’ shot, but for the most part, Weiner segregates the children from their father here. They may share the same physical space and be looking in the same direction, but they’re not seeing at the same thing. Don needs to tell them what it is they’re seeing — the narrative has become content dependent again. Which is why, before cutting to the shot below, Weiner has Don inform them that “This is where I grew up.”

We’re looking at them looking at the house, not because we don’t know what it is, but because we don’t know what Don’s up to. Nor should we, because that’s not Don. Because this is the moment Dick Whitman’s chosen to pitch his life to his children. He’s spent a lifetime telling them the equivalent of his initial Hershey pitch, so he knows he needs to find something bold and unexpected to draw them into his story. And as with the Hershey pitch, he decides to go with the painfully unvarnished truth: the whorehouse in which he was raised. Weiner then switches to a first-person shot of some sort:

Your guess is as good as mine as to whose perspective this is. I’d wager it’s Sally’s, for reasons I explain below and because in the previous shot she’s the one most centrally located vis-a-vis the stairs. But Sally still doesn’t quite understand what she’s looking at. This season has addressed the racial upheaval the late ’60s, but Sally’s experience with African-Americans seems limited at this point to a thief and her former nanny, so I doubt she has any real understanding of the larger situation. She seems to understand here, however, that her father’s trying to tell her something about race in America at the moment:

Because the camera jump-cuts to the small boy standing aimlessly on the porch. He’s meaningful — the jump-cut from the extreme to the medium long shot informs us that she’s paying particular attention now — but she doesn’t know what he means. She doesn’t understand how her father could’ve grown up in what her brother referred to as “a bad neighborhood.” So what does the child mean? For Sally, he’s some sort of living connection to her father’s past, but that’s a line of thought that she’s not prepared to handle. She can’t understand what this child could possibly mean. And so the final exchange is unspoken, but the reverse shots fit a familiar pattern:

I’ve tried to use the font size to demonstrate how, unlike the earlier incarnation of this sequence, at this point everything’s deescalating. This isn’t a drunken Draper building up to an inevitable bar fight — it’s a battered Whitman telling his children the quiet truth of his life. That it’s structured as a similar series of two-shots — with one character towering over the other — invites us to consider the differences between his encounter with the bar and this moment with his children. Foremost among them is that there’s no personal space being violated, although that’s a bit of a dodge because his other two children are standing between them. Or are they? Of course they are, as much was established in the establishing shot. But they’re not in frame because they don’t matter. Ages ago, I argued that Mad Men will be remembered as Sally’s show, and this is one of those moments when I feel vindicated for doing so. Draper’s effectively gone at this point, but he left behind this broken shell of a man named Whitman and a precocious daughter whose future won’t be burdened by his past.

*Which is why I think the final season of Buffy was underrated. Critics became annoyed when Whedon let Buffy rehash Saint Crispin’s Day every episode, but that was the point: divorced from her ability to back them up, her words lost their argumentative power; but instead of finding ways to make them more meaningful, she just started to produce more of them, as if she believed that if she talked long enough she’d convince herself, and that once she convinced herself, she’d convince her troops. She failed, spectacularly, to do anything of the sort. It made for stretches of uninspiring dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it made for bad television.

Comments (45)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey, I’m glad to see someone thinks similar thoughts to mine about Buffy’s final season. I think all this unsuccessful speechifying was just one of several ways that the season emphasized Buffy failing as a tough-guy leader. That sets up the final episode, when Buffy finally finds success as a leader by empowering others.

    • SEK says:

      I can assure you, we’re very alone in this opinion. But I think we’re in the right, and that’s all that matters to me.

      • SpaceSquid says:

        This is a mast I’ve pinned my colours to ever since I first saw season 7, if it in any way helps. The fact that both Giles and Xander both all but explicitly state this is what’s going on should be considered something of a clue, one would think.

      • Kal says:

        So, I get what’s going on with the speechifying, and always did. It’s just annoying and stupid. Joss Whedon has nothing very interesting to say about “leadership”, in part because it’s very difficult to say anything interesting about “leadership”.

        • Marc J. says:

          I always took it as the fact that while Buffy is a great hero and the protagonist, she’s not a very good leader or hell, even a team-player. Her friends have saved her multiple times but she really is a lone wolf, like all Slayers. And as a teenager, everyone feels the world is against them, in Buffy’s case, it’s practically literal and her maturity is working with others and opening up to her friends and family.

          Season 7 is a really solid season and final season to the show.

    • elm says:

      I also didn’t hate season 7, in part because I liked the story of Buffy’s ineptitude. But it was one of the weaker seasons of the series, in part because Noxon sucks and she was still the showrunner that year. It was better than other Noxon seasons because Joss seemed to take a more active role to send the show out his way, but that led to some inconsistencies and unevenness.

      Although Joss introduced some inconsistencies all by himself, by his own admission. In an early episode, Buffy all but dies killing a single uber-vamp; in the final episode the newbie-slayers are killing them by the dozen. There are ways to rescue this inconsistency, but Joss admits in the commentary track that he didn’t bother to try, saying something like “I had to choose between being consistent and telling a kick-ass story. I chose the latter.” I expect more from Joss: I expect him to do both.

      This sort of sloppiness as well as Noxon’s insistence that Buffy/Spike was the most interesting story to tell weakened the season as well as other similar Noxon foibles. But it wasn’t as bad as most seem to think and SEK may have nailed one of the reasons.

  2. Taylor says:

    Breaking Bad heads into the endgame in a little over four weeks. Christ, what an excellent show. It helps that it has characters that you care about.

    • SEK says:

      And I’ll be covering it weekly, hopefully with both posts and podcasts.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

      I’m watching the first season of BB now and am only 3 episodes or so in, and one of my biggest problems thus far is that I don’t really care about any of the characters. Everyone says to stick with it, so I plan to at least get through the first season but it sure would help if I started to root for somebody soon. I mean I root for the main character rationally but not emotionally yet, if that makes sense. I’ve been spoiled with the last two epic series’ I’ve watched (GoT and Boardwalk Empire) both having several characters that I liked almost immediately.

      • SEK says:

        Eventually you’ll root for “The Way Out,” whatever it may be. You won’t particularly like anyone, but you’ll see the corners they’ve backed themselves into, and how increasingly impossible it is to extricate themselves from them, and a general sense of pity will emerge.

        Also, it’s really beautifully shot, often by the same people who are responsible for the other shows you name.

      • Dave says:

        I’m about half way through the 2nd season. I can see what you’re saying. The plot is stronger than the characters early on. But I’m starting to see what SEK is saying about pity. It’s working enough to make me hope AMC gets me caught up before the last season starts.

        • SEK says:

          I think AMC’s timed it so you’re exactly caught up by the second half’s “season” premier.

        • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

          That’s good to hear. Enough people I respect, and/or people who know my personal taste for film/tv have told me that BB is totally my kinda show, that I was already pretty determined to stick with it. I only mentioned the slow start because it came up here. I haven’t really noticed the beautifully shot element yet, but that may be because the first few episodes have largely been sensory overload from the cringe-worthy circumstances of how the whole thing gets started.

          • There was a moment in the middle of the third season where the show tilted over, for me, to not just (to be crude) crude violence. I fully didn’t expect it to be carried forward, but in the fourth season, which I’m watching now, it is.

  3. Todd says:

    The visual set up of the scene, and especially the use of vertical lines (with the backgrounds of telephone and power poles and porch columns), reminds me of the first scene of “East of Eden”. Here Cal looks for the truth (verification) about his mother, who is a whorehouse madam. There, the tall verticals seemed like a sort of a countdown to the confrontation, where the verticals behind Cal as he stared at the whorehouse were mirrored in shots of the house itself. I wonder if the same visual idea in this scene (assuming most if not all of the poles and background structures were intentionally CGI-ed) is meant to signify the impending revelation, and the sameness-within-the-differences of the two worlds.

    • SEK says:

      I was going to do a comparison of the first shots of the house and those near the end, but the difference seemed merely to be that there was more at the end: more tenements, more phone poles, etc. In other words, I think there’s a sameness-within-the-differences agenda here, but a pessimistic one: no matter how much the Civil Rights Movement gained, there will still be poor black boys standing on decrepit porches.

      Though there is that tension between the closing music, Sally’s promising future, and the world her father’s invited her into. It’s as if it’s all coexisting, restlessly, in a historical moment that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.

      • Todd says:

        Yes, and possibly the “more” is a left to right increase with meaning; with the stuff on the left (old telephone poles and smokestacks) representing the past, and the more stuff on the right (newer power lines) representing the future.

        Even the handrail on the right that the boy has his arm around seems newer and almost freshly painted compared to the rest of the porch. Maybe this ties the boy even more closely to Sally’s future promise, albeit at a much lower level.

  4. James E. Powell says:

    This may be widely known, but I have no idea where that house is in relation to NYC. Has that been established?

    • SEK says:

      In reality, very, very far away.

      On the show, it’s in Pennsylvania.

      • Miss Porter’s isn’t in Pennsylvania. I assume they’re on their way to Hershey Park. (Why is Bobby asking about Hershey in the car, if his father doesn’t have the account?)

        • Davis says:

          New Jersey?

          • SEK says:

            I would think it’d have to be in Pennsylvania, since they were talking about Hershey, PA anyway. I could very well be wrong, though a rural-to-urban transition through Pennsylvania makes a certain amount of sense, intuitively.

            • My initial thought, cynic that I am, was that Draper had picked a random house in lower Westchester County, one that looked kind of right, and told his kids it was where he grew up. But that house could easily be en route from NYC to Hershey. I’m pretty sure I’ve been there in late fall.

              But where were those apartment buildings photoshopped in from?

              • TribalistMeathead says:

                That entire scene was perplexing. I thought the whorehouse in question was in Missouri. And I guess Draper’s first pitch to Hershey and its mention of Hershey ads mentioning its orphanage was supposed to indicate that the whorehouse was in PA, though that sounded like something that could’ve appeared in a national campaign.

                • The whole “got his sexual education from prostitutes,” especially in the way it’s shot, owes a lot to Fosse in All That Jazz, incidentally.

        • TribalistMeathead says:

          I doubt they’d be going to Hersheypark in November.

          • SEK says:

            The only time I ever went was on a field trip, which had to be have been closer to November than not.

            • Lowkey LieSmith says:

              I thinking the town would be Reading or Allentown. Though I would vote for Bethlehem – it is early rust belt.

              Seems to me that earlier seasons had dick on a mid-western farm. His brother was not at the whorehouse.

              • Suzyq says:

                Don told Conrad Hilton that the family lived in Illinois until they lost the farm, then they wound up in Pennsylvania.

                In the first season, when Adam sees Dick on the train, the station announcement says they’re in Sunbury.

  5. gogiggs says:

    Another Whedon example was in Season 4 when Lindsay Crouse, who was looking to be the seasons big villian, is giving her big-villian-lays-out-their-scheme soliloquy only to be abruptly killed by her own creation, Adam.

    Maybe I should revisit season 7. I didn’t love it, but I recall not hating the same things others hated and/or not hating them as much.

    • SEK says:

      Another Whedon example …

      I could’ve gone on all day. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Whedon — but his unpredictability can get a bit predictable at times.

  6. Shakezula says:

    Are there no cowboy hats? Are there no lasers?

    There are not. Hmph.

  7. Dave says:

    The point out it being Sally’s show is interesting because even though I would guess that she doesn’t get a ton of screen time compared to the rest of the cast, she does seem to get some big moments. If I’m remembering the last few episodes correctly, it was Sally walking in on Don having an affair that finally killed Don and brought about Dick.

    Good point about season 7 of Buffy. Much like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, seeing Buffy go through the motions that usually resulted in them defeating the big bad but instead being defeated in spectacular fashion (the uber-vamp kicks the shit out of her) created a sense of tension that made me buy into the idea that there was a real elevated threat.

    • Cody says:

      I understand why people hated the season also.

      Damn it I hate it when the good guy loses! Makes it unfun to watch if you’re just going vegetable on a TV for an hour.

  8. N__B says:

    Of course, when I want to someday show Mini__B the whorehouse I grew up in, I’ll just pull out a map of the U.S.

  9. Alan G. Kaufman says:

    Excellent deconstruction. Very illuminating. Two points for your consideration. The second “really” from Sally is actually an “OK.” It throws us back to the Father daughter conversation through the door after Sally caught her Dad schtupping the neighbor: He says; “It’s complicated.” She replies: “OK.” The second set of pictures in your series recapitulates that exchange. And then there is Bobby. I suggest the point of view where Weiner zooms in on the steps and the small black child with the Popsicle is Bobby’s view, as it is followed by Bobby looking up at his father — a group scene (a picture you skipped; this occurs just before Sally and her Father exchange the looks you show). This is a bit of sly humor as it serves to remind the viewer of Bobby’s question to his sister after the home invasion by the woman claiming to have raised their father…. now Bobby has to be thinking, as he looks away from the black child on the porch of the house in which his father has just revealed to be the place he grew up, up to his now newly illuminated father: “We really ARE negroes.” Sly humor poking at Bobby’s youth and childlike simplicity (his father doesn’t look back at him as he does to Sally) that amplifies the poignancy. meaning and effect in Sally’s more mature exchange of looks with her father. A very effective construction of a scene indeed.

    • SEK says:

      Despite it contradicting mine, I like this reading. I’d forgotten about Bobby’s question, but in light of that, the focus on the black child might be one of sympathetic identification. Not with blacks as a class or a race, but with their status as outsiders. My only qualm would be that this would be that this would be the first time Bobby’s ever realized such a connection, and you think they’d play it up more, if so. But even then, I like how you connect it back to Sally. Clearly, I have to do a little more thinking in this.

      • Alan G. Kaufman says:

        The idea of using the black characters to connect the Whitmans to their own status as outsiders is a penetrating insight. I think that explains much.

  10. TribalistMeathead says:

    That screenshot really highlights how crappy the CGI work on the house was. Thank God Mad Men finally has its own equivalent of CGI Livia.

  11. [...] his kids to what we presume is Sunbury to show them the (*****)house where he lived as a boy. Mad Men: Who’s “In Care Of” what now? – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns … but this is the actual house and it's not in Sunbury, PA. It's in CA. FOUND: Don Draper's [...]

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  13. [...] white man in a grey flannel suit, so it’s problematic. (Then again, so is the privilege of ”Don Draper” at this point.) But it’s an American mess, is what I’ve learned.AG: How about the rest of the [...]

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