Robert Chew, who played Prop Joe in The Wire, has passed. One of the greatest roles in one of the greatest television shows in history.
Why has television surpassed film as the most important form of motion picture media? Maybe because shows like Mad Men tell interesting stories while the 14th sequel to a superhero movie might sell tickets in China but is culturally irrelevant over the long-term. And while I don’t doubt that TV being free after subscription and pirating are issues, the real problem for Hollywood is that they don’t tell interesting stories anymore, preferring to rely on CGI and tricks to get 15 year old boys to spend money, while adults can watch Mad Men or Girls or The Wire or whatever.
But hey, I’m sure having Seth MacFarlane host the Oscars will make a huge difference and put film back on top. Clearly Hollywood studio executives have identified the problem correctly…..
Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct. The attacks on Lena Dunham as the ultimate purveyor of white privilege in the arts are utterly bizarre. This isn’t to say Dunham doesn’t benefit from white privilege or shouldn’t think of casting non-whites in her show, but she hardly benefits more than anyone else and is hardly more guilty than anyone else.
To recap: in the first post, I demonstrated how Van Patten turned Will into a sympathetic character. In the second post, I established that the scenes in Winterfell that weren’t in the novel were designed to establish a perspective on Will’s coming execution that’s focalized through Bran, but which also introduces the audience to the larger Stark family dynamics. (I also, as Julia Grey pointed out, inadvertantly indicated how Arya’s character would develop over the course of the season. I’ll let Julia’s analysis carry the weight of that interpretative thread for now and return to it when it comes to fore later.) Before I can yoke those arguments together, though, it would behoove us to see what happens when Bran steps off-stage, as it were, beginning with the announcement of Will’s capture:
Those smiles are residual: for one of the only time in the series, Ned and Catelyn have watched Arya and Bran engaging in what we might call “play.” She hits his target and he’s encouraged by his brothers, bastard and true, as well as his parents, to take off after her:
Turning downtown Springfield, Oregon into a Simpsons-themed shopping district actually makes a tiny bit of sense, as cheesy as it would be, considering that downtown Springfield reminds one of a city like Canton or Schenectady more than Eugene or Portland.
Most of what I read about the latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) focused on Joan’s decision to accept Pete’s indecent proposal—and rightly so—but the title of the episode basically demands the audience answer the question “Who’s the woman, and who’s the other one?” As far as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that it’s Joan, who unlike Megan and Peggy lacks a defined role in Don’s life, but that strikes me as only significant in this episode and inconsonant with developments in the series as whole. Moreover, the final minutes of the episode indicate that while Peggy’s role in Don’s life may have been circumscribed by their working relationship in recent episodes, it bears remembering that, before Megan, Peggy and Don regularly confided in each other about things like the ramifications of unplanned pregnancies. In short, I’d argue that over the course of five seasons, Peggy’s been Don’s perpetual “other woman,” and I think the structure of the episode bears this out.
But first things first, let me remind you of a moment from the first episode of the first season. Don criticizes Peggy for allowing Pete to enter his office and steal research from his trash, to which Peggy responds thus:
The latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) presented me with more to think about than I can currently wrap my head around, but so too did the latest Games of Thrones (“Blackwater”), albeit it for very different reasons. So instead of delving into “The Other Woman” or drowning in the sudden narratological shift in “Blackwater,” I’ll focus on a fine point about shot construction in Game of Thrones. Before I do, however, I should note that I’m by no means endorsing the more problematic elements of the show—the racial politics foremost among them—because those strike me as endemic to sword-and-sorcery as a genre, so anything I write about them will inevitably be general and uninteresting to a fault.
If you want a re-cap of the episode itself, I recommend Alyssa’s, but for my purpose all you need to know is that 1) the great Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister and 2) he commands an army that’s on the brink of being besieged. Tyrion, in the lingo of the show, is a “halfman,” and Dinklage’s height presents difficulties for directors—if they shoot a close-up or medium close-up of him in conversation, his wit and intelligence will be diminished by the fact that his head’s surrounded by a sea of crotches. The typical solutions to this problem are two-fold: have everyone he converses with sit down while doing so (as Thomas McCarthy did extensively in The Station Agent) or shoot him in extremely shallow focus so he’s surrounded by a sea of fuzzy crotches. In “Blackwater,” director Neil Marshall eschews both techniques, employing instead an exceedingly stylized compositional mode that would look ostentatious in almost any other context. To wit:
How many shows have reached such outstanding heights in the 5th season as Mad Men has done this year, episode after episode? The last 3 episodes especially have been just fantastic. And the comedic writing is so much higher this year. I find myself laughing out loud consistently, which I don’t remember doing before. Even The Wire slipped in season 5. I guess MASH and Seinfeld were pretty fantastic around season 5 and The Sopranos was always pretty great. But there’s not many shows still able to break new ground in their 5th season.
In other words, you west coast people need to be watching tonight.
(It goes without saying that this is another one of those posts.)
Poor self-defeating Pete, trying his best to become the very Draper whose misery’s invisible to him. Remember when Pete had hope, and director John Slattery hammered the possibility of it home via reverse shots? How Pete saw Peggy longing for him:
Returned her implicit, medium long offer in kind:
And was returned in kind:
And again, an almost final invitaiton?
Of course, between them in each reverse shot is the not-insignificant–and increasingly significant, given the racial aspects entering the series in future episodes–glass door separating the firm from the world it claims to represent. As I wrote in the post linked above:
The viewer is looking at Peter looking at Peggy in the first medium close up in the scene. (There is a slight unreality to this point of view shot: it zooms in on the pair in a way only cameras can. The zooming seems to act as a cinematic proxy for attention or concentration.) Slattery made sure the nearly invisible wall separating them remained visible, which creates a tension between the intimacy of the close up and the reality of the glass walls separating them. That he chooses a more intimate when these two are in different rooms is, for obvious reasons, significant. She sees him peering at her and, by its positioning, the camera acknowledges the bond that will remain despite the increasing distance between them: the baby they had together.
But now Peter’s a father, only not of Peggy’s baby, but of his own. Who’s screen presence exists as such:
See the baby? The one he had so he could be more like Draper? It’s sitting there, frame central, hovering invisible in that tacky chair he should’ve had the decency to replace if he’d had any sense of style. He’s becoming Draper–disappearing into the life he mistakenly believed he wanted. No children to greet him, just cold dinner and a warm shot of whisky. Don’t believe me? Let’s rewrind to the first season and remind you of a similarly framed shot:
In this case, however, Betty’s lying about going to the community center to watch them film the pool–she’s off to watch pretty things die, as per the episode’s title, for”Sport.” But there’s something more than sport to her deliberations. She wants to savor the experience of watching something die. First she feeds the children, then she does the laundry:
Then the camera acknowledges that she’s had an idea and zooms into a close-up to reiterate that fact:
Note the joy on her face. Knowing that her idea is one that–whatever joy it might bring her, society would disapprove of, she ponders her decision for a moment:
Moments are fleeting:
Her decision has been made. Cut to exterior:
Relief. Betty’s just a central figure staring at the sky in wonderment at all God’s creations:
Look at those birds? The fact that they’re incapable of being centrally staged only emphasizes their freedom. The frame can’t constrain them! They’re free! If only Betty had an equivalently symbolic emblem of relinquishing societal constraints:
She does. Her feelings of entrapment are nothing a healthy dose of nicotine can’t cure. Except why has she shifted stage-left? She had occupied the central portion of the screen, but now it’s as if she’s making room for something else. Whatever could that be?
Of course, she being an American, the only thing she can do with her symbol of freedom is shoot it with … another symbol of her freedom. I wasn’t able to capture her aiming the gun, which is why the space on the right side of the frame had to be cleared, but that’s why it was. Oddly, her cigarette still occupies the central portion of the frame, as if, like the nicotine it delivers into her blood, is calming her down, making her transgressive violence possible. Can’t be sure. However, visually speaking, the indication is that Draper’s created/creating a sociopath, and the implication is that Peter’s following a similar path. He began his morning commutes in “A Little Kiss,” you’ll remember, alone and engrossed in a paper:
His loneliness is highlighted by both the empty chair beside him and the man with the solitaire board across from him. By episode’s end, things seem a bit different, though:
Wonder why that might be? Couldn’t have anything to do with, say, this:
Nothing at all there. Not between Peggy and Pete. Not with a viable baby hanging out right there in a carriage.
UPDATE: This is not what I do.
My promised follow up post about Peter’s sad descent into the trappings of Draper’s life is nearly half-complete, but I wanted to address something that’s come up in the comments first, because I encounter variations of it every time I teach. Uncle Ebeneezer wrote
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.
He’s correct in that I encounter this all the time–frequently as a back-handed compliment about me putting more thought into the show than the people who made it–but it’s usually the person doing the slapping that has no clue what they’re talking example. For example, in an interview I can’t relocate, Christopher Nolan was discussing the logistics of using an IMAX camera to capture Christian Bale hanging off of a skyscraper in Hong Kong. The joke of it was that between the helicopter, its pilot, safety equipment, those equipped to use it, Nolan and Bale’s salaries, the insurance policy on Bale, the rental cost of the IMAX camera and its crew, every single syllable was costing Warner Brothers $300,000, “so if everyone would quit fucking cursing they could fucking film this fucking shot for under three million dollars.”
And that’s pre-production. So do I occasionally hazard into a situation in which I over-read some last minute practicality? No doubt. But should the wizards with the duct tape see my analysis and note that I missed their wizardry, don’t you think they’d be proud that they’d done their job so well I couldn’t imagine it having been done differently? But if your friends are still unconvinced–and if my students are any indication, many of them will be, send them to the “full credits” listing of a show like Mad Men. John Rogers—friend of the blog and showrunner of Leverage—can add to any of the many things I’ve forgotten, but keep in mind that all of the following people must be paid, eat, have their equipment plugged in and powered up, etc., and remember as your friend’s scrolling down that very, very long list, there are a number of unusual positions, such as:
- hair stylist/background hair stylist
- hair stylist/key hair stylist
- hair department head
- special effects makup artist
- on-set dresser
- art department coordinator
- set decoration buyer
- second assistant camera “a” cameria/ second assistant camera “b” camera
- best boy rigging electrician
- genny operator
- post-post production assistant coordinator
- colorist dailies
- 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.
(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:
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:
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 occasions–and 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”:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
I think I speak for everyone at LGM when I say this about the new season of Mad Men:
OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!
3 hours and 18 minutes until Mad Men!!!!!!
I will be spending the hour before the big show watching my favorite episode, “The Jet Set,” from season 2.