(Being the first of many of these I’ll be producing this summer.)
With summer here and only some online teaching duties to attend to—meaning that I can put the 2½ hours I don’t have to commute to and from campus to better use—I’ve decided to address short scenes from something compelling on a daily basis. This is the first such post, and as the title suggests, I’m not exactly working out of my comfort zone yet. (That will change.)
Before I can discuss Mad Men‘s fifth season finale, “The Phantom,” in any detail, I need to look back to its first season finale, “The Wheel,” because it contains a scene that subtends the most pivotal moment in “The Phantom.” If you recall, in the first season Don’s position in the firm is that of a star employee: trusted, but always expected to perform; necessary, but not irreplaceable. Or it was, before he reimagined Kodak’s “Projector of Poorly Framed Unprofessional Photographs” into a “Carousel” that transformed photographic imperfection into a dead letter office overstuffed with reclaimable memories. Only Matt Weiner, pulling double-duty as both writer and director here, doesn’t seem to believe the power of Don’s pitch, despite its seemingly self-evident efficacy. (That link will take you to the entire scene, in case you want to compare my reading of its constituent parts to the amalgamated whole.) On what am I basing my claim that Weiner’s trying to undermine Draper’s ostensibly successful pitch?
Glad you asked. Let’s start with the context. In “The Wheel,” Betty’s discovered incontrovertible proof of one of Don’s many infidelities, and Don’s decided not to spend Thanksgiving with the in-laws because he recognizes, rightfully, that his family is falling apart. His situation makes the substance of his appeal to Eastman Kodak all the more difficult to deliver, because it consists of images of his formerly happy family interacting in a manner they never will again. In short: Draper pushes the “nostalgia” angle because, at this point, his family consists of the memories he has of what they’ll never be again. He’s lost the right to say that’s “his” wife or “his” children being projected on the wall, but he has to sell the fact that, by virtue of Eastman Kodak’s marvelous new technology, they can always be “his” again, on celluloid if not in life. To wit:
Weiner begins with a long shot, center on Don, with his colleagues flanked to his right and his customers to his left. (“Duck,” the firm’s intermediary with the clients, is positioned appropriately enough between the Eastman Kodak cartel and Don.) It’s a well-balanced shot, with the windows frame-left balanced by the painting frame-right, not to mention the diegetic lights emenating both from behind and above Don that signal (in case you somehow missed it) that he’ll be the focal point of this scene. All of which is only to say that this scenes screams of hierarchy—of a controlled environment in which professionals will do what professionals will do. Of course, in this case, what professionals do is manipulate impressionable clients by appealing to the inherent sentimentality of the American people, which is why Don opens with technology, but moves on to: