If there's any tv show better written than Mad Men, I sure don't know about it. The writing is so controlled and so deliberate that every line resonates with nuance. The characters are beautifully drawn, too. In that Vanity Fair article Alicia linked, they described the writing as novel-like, and I think that might be why we're so drawn to it. Everything is built in layers, and the use of reversals and contrasts is almost poetically deft.
Alicia talked about how they structured the first episode of season three. Now I would like to revisit the foil technique we discussed last year when we looked at season one, episode one. They use this technique so effectively and so consistently that it's worth examining. Mad Men is truly a show not just for watching, but for studying.
Ken and Pete
Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell are account managers. When a British firm acquires the Sterling Cooper agency, the existing head of accounts is fired. Instead of replacing him immediately, the British financial officer splits accounts into two pieces. Ken gets one piece, and Pete gets the other.
Pete and Ken have dramatically different characters, and those character differences are highlighted in paired scenes in which each is privately told that he will be "head of accounts." Neither is told that this title will now be shared. Each thinks he has won the big prize.
So let's look at the two scenes. They're set up as foils with their intros. Pete is told that Price wants to see him, and responds, "I'm at lunch." It's a stalling tactic because he's nervous. By contrast, when Ken enters Price's office later, he breezily announces, "I heard you wanted to see me, so I had a sandwich for lunch." Lunch is not a way to delay an unpleasant meeting, but something to be concluded quickly to the meeting could commence. This intro flagged the scenes and made me pay close attention.
Pete is very tense when he enters Price's office. He thinks he is about to be fired. Instead, Price says, "I can't speak for everyone here, but I like you." This sounds to me like a pregnant line. (Pun intended, har dee har.) "Liking" Pete doesn't usually end well. Peggy liked Pete, and she ended up hiding a pregnancy and almost went insane when she had to give the baby away. Pete's wife teeters between spoiled self-indulgence and a childish yearning to return to her primary family, perhaps because she's barren, and perhaps because she's the kind of woman who would marry a guy like Pete. And remember Duck Phillips? He liked Pete, turned into an alcoholic, and lost his job.
So now here is Mr. Price, claiming to like Pete. Why would he even say that? He never echoes this sentiment when he's talking to Ken about the same promotion. It's a slightly strange thing to say, as if liking Pete is so unusual that it needs to be announced. With Ken, a guy everyone likes, no such reassurance would be necessary. I'm sure Ken assumes he's liked wherever he goes, and his friends hardly ever end up pregnant, barren, insane, drunk, or fired.
Back to Pete. When Price invites him to take a seat, Pete refuses. He insists on standing and betrays his deep anxiety over this meeting:
Price: Have a seat.
Price: Is something the matter?
Pete: You just fired the head of my department and now you're offering me a seat.
Price: How cruel of me.
By contrast, when Ken enters the same office for the same meeting, he takes a seat without being invited and lights up a smoky treat. He's casual and confident, interested but not worried. He is the anti-Pete.
When Price tells both men they're being promoted to head of accounts, their reactions are telling.
Pete: Is this really happening? I need to know it's certain.
Pete has been disappointed before, and it has made him suspicious and tense. Compare that to Ken's cheerful response.
Ken: Really? That's spectacular. Thank you!
Pete's anxiety never really leaves him when he's with other people, and it cloaks him in awkwardness through this entire scene. Only after he has left Price's office and is alone, behind his closed office door, can he give in to some celebratory feelings. He does a strange little happy dance -- one of the best moments of the entire episode, I thought -- and calls his wife to tell her the news.
During that call, he admits that he never even asked if he would get a raise. Ken, by contrast, launched right into the money talk after his cheerful thanks. Ken also shook Price's hand -- gratitude, celebration, and cementing the deal. But Pete, despite his good news, is still tense and edges out of Price's office almost without letting Price get out the word splendid. (Note that Pete immediately echoes this word, though, when talking to his secretary.)
Sal and Don
Sal (the closeted homosexual) and Don (the antihero protagonist) go to Baltimore together to schmooze the London Fog account. While en route, they strike up a conversation with a stewardess and, after a dinner and drinks scene, Don ends up taking one of the stewardesses back to his room. (He's such a whore, and he obviously hasn't learned his lesson after last season, but that's another issue.)
Sal goes back to his room. There is some intercutting between Sal's room and Don's room. They're played off each other a little bit. Sal flops on the bed, alone, then calls the front desk to get his air conditioner repaired. Don sits on the edge of his bed, not alone, and eggs the stewardess on as she strips for him. Their rooms are stacked on top of each other, separated by a floor or two.
Both men are the seducees, rather than the seducers. When the bellhop (a young man) kisses Sal, Sal nearly comes apart with yearning and terror. Don, by contrast, is very easy with his role as passion's victim. But then, he should be. He's had a lot of practice.
The stewardess peels off her jacket and blouse. The bellhop removes his jacket. Both Don and Sal give in. We know they're not holding anything back.
But then, a fire alarm sounds. Don reacts instantly, throwing clothes at the stewardess and leading her out the window to the fire escape. Sal is confused, though. It takes him a moment to recognize the sound, and then, his disappointment in the lost opportunity is so palpable that we almost wish he would ignore the alarm and take his one opportunity now, before it evaporates.
Yes, this is Sal's only such opportunity for hanky-panky to date. Contrast that with Don't line to the stewardess after she has confessed she's engaged and this might be her last chance to dally: "Believe me, there are plenty of chances."
As Don and the stewardess are darting down the fire escape, Don pauses at Sal's window and knocks to warn him about the fire. He sees the bellhop with his jacket off. Sal also sees the half-clothed stewardess, but this somehow is never an issue. (Why? It's obvious, right?)
In the street, as the firemen are putting out the blaze, the stewardess clings to Don, and the bellhop abandons Sal. Also note that Don's bare feet get a good flash on the screen. We know Sal is still wearing his shoes, though.
Are there any other details that support these pairings? Let's talk about them! If you haven't already seen this episode, by the way, it's available on demand if you're with Comcast. And I'm pretty sure AMC will repeat it on Sunday before they air episode 2. That was their pattern last year, if I remember right.