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William Bradley

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Mad Men: When Is a Big Reveal Not So Revealing?

Posted: 06/10/2013 5:27 pm

So for a real blockbuster of a plot twist, how about the U.S.-China Summit?

Xi there meeting in Rancho Mirage, California with Obama and all the time the NSA whistleblower is in, wait for it, Hong Kong!

I love it.

After Favors, just two episodes remain in this uneven Season 6 of Mad Men. May all gods be praised. Oh, wait, that's probably something they would say on the show that has all the buzz, Game of Thrones, which ended its blood-soaked season in bloody fashion Sunday night.

Beware of spoilers, as always, and here's an archive of my pieces on the show, in The Mad Men File.

After weeks of declining ratings, leading to the least viewed episode since 2009 the Sunday before last, Mad Men finally rose in the ratings again last week. Will Sunday night's episode drive things upward again?

Well, it was pretty familiar territory, at least thematically. Which means, uh-oh, the endless existential crisis and ever impending doom of one Don Draper/Dick Whitman.

Fortunately, the outside world of that most tempestuous of years, 1968, very much impinged on the frequently airless nature of our domestic drama. It's September 1968, and the son of Don and Megan's neighbors, Don's friend heart surgeon Arnold Rosen and his wife, ex-Draper inamorata Sylvia, has protested the war and his life in general by dropping out of college and mailing his draft card to the government. Which is like putting a big hit-me sign on one's forehead. Mitchell not only looks like a Paul Revere and the Raiders-style rock star, to Sally Draper's tweener delight, he kinda thinks like one, too.

Don, a Nixon supporter when we met him in 1960 who is now against the Vietnam War, decides to try to help the kid get out of the draft without fleeing to Canada. To his partners' dismay, he sounds out some big General Motors execs at a business dinner. Even raising the issue of a young man looking to get out of the Vietnam War draft raises the hackles of these honchos of one of America's biggest defense contractors.

Fortunately, Don's longtime rival-turned-frenemy and partner Ted Chaough, after chastising Don for risking the agency's business relationship, has a solution. His old flying teacher is a general in the Air National Guard. Mitchell, after losing the rock star hair and signing a Draper-written encomium to the wonders of flight, can get an Air Guard slot (like a certain future president who joined the Texas Air National Guard in the same year) and avoid combat.

Yay! Don is a hero. Arnold and Mitchell and Sylvia are relieved, the latter so much so that she has sex with Don again after their much hoped-for-here break-up earlier in the season. But there's a problem.

Sally is in the big city for Model United Nations. Cool, Sally is a MUNner! She could be, like, my sister. My big sister, that is, as the Mad Men character who best equates to me is Bobby "Can we please watch Planet of the Apes again?" Draper. Anyway, her meddlesome mean girl pal has bossily left a letter in Sally's name for Mitchell laying out, as it were, the reasons she has a great big crush on him. (We'll see how that crush plays out after the big Air Force haircut. He's a little cuter than George W. Bush, but still ... )

In a panic, Sally sneaks into the Rosens' apartment to retrieve the letter only to find ... In flagrante delicto.

Maybe Sally, after finding "Uncle" Roger Sterling and Step-Gram Julia Ormond going at it late last season, will at last learn that she should knock before entering a room in Manhattan.

Of course, it plays as a shattering moment, with terrific acting by all, especially Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka as Sally. But it's funny how, after stalking off from the dinner table in a rage, Sally seems to accept Don's desperate spin -- it's complicated, he was "comforting" Mitchell's mom -- at least to a certain degree. Though clearly she will be shadowed forever.

Is this a blockbuster development? Sally learns what she suspected. Don of course already admitted that he usually doesn't feel much for his own kids. He certainly neglects them most of the time. And Sally has been very vocal about this.

Is this an extraordinary new betrayal for her? Not so much. Though certainly a searing image for her.

The thing that actually is new is ubiquitous yet highly efficient brown-noser Bob Benson seemingly revealed as gay, and coming on to Pete Campbell! If he is gay, that is, and it's not more misdirection. If it's not misdirection, he turns out to be a big red herring this season.

How much sense does it make that Bob, a master at reading situations and people, would suddenly come on to Pete, who has just made his homophobia eminently clear? Er, not much. But it's in the script, so it may mean something.

In his iTunes commentary on the episode, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner says this incident with Sally may be the worst thing ever to happen to Don. Really, since Weiner also said earlier in the season that Don never loved his children? He's also not too clear on Don's motivation in helping young Mitchell avoid the draft.

Later in the commentary, Weiner says that he's not sure that Bob Benson is gay, either, though he's just been presented as such. But Bob's really fascinated by Pete. Okay then.

I suspect it is the repetitiveness of these melodramatic scenarios, especially involving Don Draper, that accounts for the spate of bizarre fan theories about the show, which quickly become splashed around the Internet and written about by entertainment journalists.

When exactly did this show become Lost? (That's Lost, not Lost.) Around the time it stopped winning Emmys.

Lost was sheer fantasy, of course, yet it is Mad Men that is now inspiring such Lost-style "theorizing." Megan is Sharon Tate, Megan is already dead, Pete is about to kill himself ... because of this, that or the other bric a brac factoid within the show.

That stuff can mostly be dismissed as noise.

Of deeper concern is where the show is really heading as it prepares for its final season. We have two episodes left this season, and word came last week that there will be 14 episodes next year, rather than the usual 13. That's 16 episodes left to sort out what has been for the most part an epic novel for television.

I do hope this show isn't going to hinge on how traumatic it is for a teenager to see her father having sex. That would be a betrayal of a much larger promise.

Don hasn't killed anyone or sparked a war. He's a bad father who has no gift for relationships. He isn't even really Don Draper, since that's an identity he opportunistically assumed from his conveniently dead lieutenant in the Korean War.

The only venue in which he consistently finds meaning is the office. He still has a gift for the ad game, even though he's not paying tremendous attention these days.

The office is also where the show finds its most consistent traction and attraction.

Advertising provides such a tremendous prism through which to view events and personalities in action. The high-class soap opera elements, especially with the endless thematic repetition, do not.

Awards campaigning, incidentally, is reaching high gear now with Emmy ballots going out.

This has been a decidedly uneven season for Mad Men. But with Homeland going from the near perfection of Season 1 to the wildly imperfect yet delicious entertainments of Season 2, and Game of Thrones a fantasy genre show, Mad Men might yet have a shot at regaining the throne of its first four seasons, in which it tied the all-time record for most consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Drama.

But Breaking Bad, looking at its own end, is rolling out again -- and new dramas The Americans and House of Cards are in the mix -- so it may be more realistic to look to a strong finish to this season as the way to set up a stellar final Season 7 for Mad Men.

Fingers crossed that the next two episodes develop a sense of momentum.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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