Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Foils in Mad Men

Setting: at the front door.
Time: late night

Our man Don Draper approaches the door somewhat sluggishly. He's had a long day at work, and it shows in the way he moves. All around him, the world is asleep. On the other side of the door, his woman waits for him, but she doesn't know he's coming. He hasn't bothered to warn her.

Which scene in episode one did I just describe? Actually, two. This exact same setup repeats itself in two scenes -- first when Don goes to see his mistress, Midge, and later when he goes home.

This is a useful technique for setting up foils. We start by recognizing the similarities between these two situations, and then the differences start to become apparent. So let's examine some of these differences.

Midge's front door is green and the paint is badly chipped.
Betty's front door is gleaming red and perfectly maintained.

If you haven't already watched the episode, pay special attention to the look on Midge's face when she opens the door to let Don in. It's very subtle, very well acted. Her first reaction when she sees Don is not one of pleasure. She is surprised. Maybe a little dismayed. She does smile, after two heartbeats have passed, and her smile holds a question: why are you here?

She says, "You weren't worried about waking me, were you?"

Contrast that to Betty’s response. She is in bed. She wakes up and sits up and says she called the office and thought he would be staying in the city. Betty is also surprised to see him. As did Midge, Betty also uses words that could be interpreted as a reproach. But the look on her face is placid and accepting. She is the dutiful wife, while Midge is the saucy mistress.

And what does our man Don Draper do next? He talks to the woman. With Midge, he whines about his workday. He can't think of a slogan for his new ad campaign. He claims Pete Campbell comes into his office and sizes the place up to figure oout where to put his own plants when Don gets fired. He predicts that the junior executives will soon be picking the meat off his ribs. Midge responds by attempting to tease him out of his bad mood. He doesn't get much sympathy from her.

And what do he and Betty talk about? Dinner. The kids. Domestic trivialities, the kind that can provide a lot of comfort in life but aren't all that exciting.

The first scene is a late-night booty call, and the second is a homecoming. Midge gives him excitement. Betty gives him stability. Midge gives him sex, and Betty gives him dinner.

What other similarities and differences did you spot when you were watching these scenes? Do you see any significance in any of the details?

Using foils accomplishes a lot of goals. First, contrast heightens the feeling of drama. It keeps the reader alert. It helps them distinguish between different characters and situations, and it lends a little extra sizzle to those differences. We understand that drama is born of conflict, and conflict is born of differences. Foils help us in that quest.

Foils also help the reader get a better handle on situations and characters by providing high contrast. Even when there is no overt conflict, it's easier to follow along when there are marked differences. I'm reminded of Michael Scott from The Office, who, when confronted with two Japanese waitresses, writes with magic marker on the arm of one so that he can tell them apart. When Midge's hair is sloppy and she's dressed in a man's shirt, and Betty's hair is perfectly groomed even when she's in bed, we can see very easily the differences between these two women. Midge can change her wig, and Betty can get out of bed, and we will still be able to tell them apart.

But foils also provide a very subtle place for us to establish theme and subtext. What are the unstated messages that we can take away from these two scenes when we pair them?

One. Don Draper expects his women to admit him into the home, regardless of the time. He doesn't need to give them advance warning, and he approaches them with a sense of entitlement. Although Midge tells him right away that she's up because she's working, he doesn't even seem to think twice about interrupting her. And although Betty was sleeping, she snaps right until wife mode and tries to feed him and watches him tenderly as he ruffles the hair of their sleeping children. We get the impression that no matter where he goes, he expects people to jump to do his bidding, and he gets his way. Regardless of the manor, he is the lord.

Two. Don Draper keeps his wife and family sequestered in the country. Although he approaches them with genuine affection, they are clearly cut off from the rest of his life. He enters their world, but they do not enter his. He treats the different aspects of his life as a child treats his dinner plate: you can't let the mashed potatoes touch the peas, or bad things will happen. Home seems to function both as a refuge and as a place of last resort.

Three. Why, then, is it okay for Don Draper to talk to his mistress about his job? Shouldn't these two aspects also be compartmentalized? In fact, I think there's something else going on here. Two things. First, we're still trying to establish that Don Draper is committed to his work. Second, notice that Midge also talks about her work -- drawing puppies for a greeting card campaign for grandmothers' day. But where she talks, Don talks and talks and talks. He barely even responds to anything she says. His behavior in this scene is self-obsessed. So I think the purpose here is twofold, and it doesn't have anything to do with the compartmentalization of his life.

Four. You tell me. What else can you discern from comparing these two scenes? What are the underlying messages?



Anonymous said...

One of my writing partners has viewed the pilot as well and we were discussing it yesterday. She brought up the difference between the mistress and wife, too, not having read this posting, so I passed along the link to her and another writing buddy for a definite reason: our male protagonist is the same type as Don Draper, with different stakes and level in his company [CEO], and he's not married.

We have set up two females in his life, one another MC and the other his 'plaything' bimbo. As we were talking about the roles of these women yesterday and how many words to 'give' them in the book [we're cutting] we had a similar discussion to this posting about role. In our book, the bimbo shows Lachlan's general self-perception of having things his way when and how he wants it. That woman comes in a few times in the story, but only of course when he's in the US. The other foil, and MC Cassandra, is a strong woman, social justice lawyer, and a mix of attraction to Lachlan, but also his nemesis in the storyline. These encounters in most of the book take place in South Africa.

The points you've made about the small things are elements we can learn from for strenghtening our scenes and ramp up the contrast in relation to Lachlan's behaviour and reactions.

The MadMen posts here also made us think about whether our male lead is anti-hero or merely a person of his time with problems to take care of, a softened Gordon Gecko from Wall Street. I still am not convince Don is an anti-hero, but may be more like our Lachlan, a representative of his time, doing the best he can when big challenges are presented. It's too hard to tell from the pilot episode.

The question that raises is what a reader will accept in terms of lesser exageration or stereotyping of 'badness' or 'goodness'. We're not sure on that point.

Edittorrent said...

Don's an antihero. His character unfolds as the season progresses. He does some despicable things -- his shaky morality with respect to his sex life is laying the groundwork for future questionable decisions.

One of the ways to set up an antihero is just like this -- you start off by giving the audience a reason to like him. With Don, it's the work thing. With Vito Corleone, it's the family thing. In other words, start with the "hero" part of "antihero," and bring the "anti" in later. (Though the character's "anti" will also be alluded to in the opening.)


Edittorrent said...

I think he can talk to Midge about work because he respects her. He really doesn't think of Betty as able at all to understand, though she is in fact perfectly able. He needs her to be his refuge from the work world, not part of it.

Gail Dayton said...

The underlying message--which isn't all that Underlying--is that Don is All About Don. The only thing that matters to him is Don. Nobody else is quite...real. They're not actual people. They're conveniences. Or tools. Or possessions. (Or maybe I'm projecting.)

Haven't taken the time to watch MadMen but that's what I get from your description.

Edittorrent said...

Hi, Gail! I was thinking about you. I hope you stayed dry this week.


Anonymous said...

Gail, I think your impression of it being about him is true, because he's the MC. I can't recall if it's in the voice over 1st person style of Burn Notice or Dexter, but this is definitely Don's story.

I'm just sad we can't get he series here. I like the time period of 1960 and the contrasts with today.