TV Club: Mad Men "The Wheel"
It is somewhat surprising that it's taken us this long to watch and write about what is considered one of the best dramas currently on television, but we have finally gotten around to examining one Mr. Donald Draper and the hit AMC series Mad Men.
We chose to watch the seminal conclusion to the first season, an episode aptly titled "The Wheel." This show is not an easy one to jump into, so if you are not familiar with it, I'll try to give it some sort of logic.
Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency at the heart of the series, is trying to drum up more money. Its new head of accounts, Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), is pushing the AEs to go out and shove their way into potential business. He has just landed a potential new client in Eastman Kodak with their new "wheel" projector, but they still need to win the business. Don Draper's (Jon Hamm), our anti-hero, wife Betty (January Jones) finds out about a friend's husband's infidelities and ponders her own marriage, especially given it's Thanksgiving and Don refuses to celebrate with her family. Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), who has been climbing the copywriting ladder discovers she's pregnant and then gives birth, just after she is promoted.
There is so much going on in this episode, it is difficult to summarize it all. The last main point of the episode is that Don finds out his real brother has committed suicide. And then he drinks a lot.
And, oh yeah, Pete Campbell is creepy.
ABBY: I wasn't sure if either of you were regular viewers of this show. If not, what was your impression, under the assumption that you probably were totally confused about some of the plot points. If you have watched, what's your overall take?
JEF: I watched this whole first season in two days with my wife, though I've dropped from watching it regularly now. I found it was really easy to fall back into. It's still a really tremendous episode, though it's the tail end of the "Look how different things used to be!" stuff they forced so hard.
PETE: Oh, I watch it. I think it was a great season finale, even knowing how ... well, nothing really comes of it.
ABBY: Don is maybe the most miserable character on television ever. Nothing seems to satisfy him, not alcohol, not cheating on his wife, not his beautiful family, not his career, etc. If you met him and could give him some advice, what would it be? Perhaps taking up knitting?
JEF: Start writing. Seriously, I know that's my answer to everything, but later on in the series he starts to use writing as therapy and it seems to really take the edge off his life. If you're going to walk around living a lie, you might as well banish it to paper. That's what monks used to do with demons.
PETE: Quit smoking.
ABBY: This is one of my favorite episodes from this series. It's heartbreaking in many ways. One of the lines that sticks out to me the most occurs when Betty is talking to her therapist about Don's adulterous ways and she says sometimes she feels like he is trying to please her in bed, and sometimes he is trying to please someone else. Why does she stay with him for so long?
JEF: Money, lack of options, the children, a desire to live up to societal ideals, love, who knows why anyone stays with anyone when they're unhappy? Personally, I have hated Betty's character from the moment she set foot on the show.
PETE: Can I just take this opportunity to point out what a creeper Betty's therapist is? I'm pretty sure he was jotting down plans stitching patterns for her skin the whole time.
As for why she sticks with Don for so long, they were on the verge of the sexual revolution. We were all unlucky enough to grow up when women were allowed to, you know, *answer their own phones*. Back before the hippies took over and turned this once great nation into Sodom Phase II, divorce was a pretty humongous deal.
ABBY: This episode focuses a lot on Betty, actually. She runs into little Glen Bishop in a parking lot and has an odd interaction with him over how miserable her life is. Recall (or not) that just a few weeks ago Betty gave him a lock of her hair. Weird. Why confide in a little kid who is missing two front teeth?
JEF: Because they can't judge you as an adult. I tell my daughter little secrets all the time. She usually responds with hugs. That's surprisingly effective.
PETE: Because she can't confide in anyone else? That's what she said, basically (to him and her therapist). You know, adults confiding in children on TV has a rich history, from Webster to Diff'rent Strokes.
ABBY: The Relaxicisor is a vibrator. I just wanted to let you know that in case you didn't. And it was a real product posing as a weight-loss tool.
JEF: Vibrators were first invented to spare doctors the necessity of manually stimulating you feeble-minded women to orgasm in order to treat your hysterical natures. Just wanted to let you know that your bedside table companion was the work of someone tired of flicking your great-grandmother's bean.
Christ... just watching this show regresses the male brain by decades.
PETE: I was wondering about that. That copy sure sounded ... enthusiastic for a rowing machine.
ABBY: How does a person not realize they are nine months pregnant? I know there are reality shows about this very topic but I just can't believe a smart woman like Peggy would have no clue whatsoever. She wasn't a big girl to begin with. That shit shows.
JEF: Well, it does happen, even to more normal-sized girls. I'm more interested in how she didn't miss seven or eight months of periods.
PETE: A) There is no way she was full-term. B) There is no way that kid was a newborn. C) I find it very suspicious that Abby never once brought up the pulchritudinous Christina Hendricks.
ABBY: Oh do you guys want to talk about how Christina Hendricks is so hot? I'm asking the questions here. Like Don, if you could assume someone else's identity, who would it be? I would be my dog. Her life is amazing. She gets treats all day and then sleeps.
JEF: I desperately want to be a powerful executive's rotten little toadie. I think I'd be good at that.
PETE: Warren Buffet. I know money can't buy you happiness, but it puts down a hell of a down payment.
ABBY: Let's talk about that sales pitch for the wheel/carousel. I teach an advertising unit and I actually show that scene to my students. It's the best advertising I have ever seen. I would buy ten of them.
JEF: *In Don Draper's voice* That's the thing about teaching advertising... you're showing young minds that they can tell a lie and get away with it. But it's a special kind of lie, more like a promise. You tell them that they can go out there and be the evangelists of products and places and ideas that will make people happy. There's an honesty in that lie because you find the best parts of your client's offerings and you present them in the best light with the hope that they will in fact be happy. Showing them this scene, is like watching a capitalist saint bless the poor of spirit. *end Don Draper's voice.*
PETE: It's a fucking fantastic scene. And what a great job, where one can experience existential catharsis during the course of one's work day.
ABBY: Ha! The ending of this episode makes me cry. Why didn't he get home in time? He really didn't want to or he realized he made a mistake? Was the double-take effective for you? I think it worked really well. We all wish that things would have just gone differently sometimes.
JEF: He didn't want to. If there's anything that Don is consistent in, it's that he is forever somewhere else.
PETE: Don temporarily let his guard down during his Kodak presentation. What makes him such a great ad man is also his biggest flaw: he can't compartmentalize anything. I think he honestly wanted to get home in time. It won't last.
ABBY: I know you guys are dudes, but we can all agree that Jon Hamm is an Adonis, right?
JEF: You sure do bring up masturbation in these articles a lot...
PETE: And he's a St. Louis Cardinals fan, which pretty much makes him the perfect man.
ABBY: And then there's Pete Campbell.
Join us next week when we will have officially lost all sense of high brow pretense as we discuss in earnest the game show The Crystal Maze. You can watch the entire episode with us here. And we will have a special guest join us!
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