Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mad Men & Music: Every Second Counts

Let me start by saying that I have no intention of doing a regular series of posts on Mad Men. Already there are multiple critics providing weekly recaps and analyses that are both exhaustive and eloquent, most notably Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz and Matt Maul. I’m happy to observe from the sidelines. But after watching Sunday’s episode, “The Suitcase,” which is easily the best installment of this fourth season and indeed one of the strongest episodes in the entire series (certainly one of the episodes with the most “wow!” moments), I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts and questions in terms of one specific scene: the last one.

Obviously if you don’t watch Mad Men or if you haven’t caught up yet, you should stop reading now. The rest of you can meet me after the jump.

Let’s start with a bit of the obvious: Season 4 has been about the downfall of Don Draper. He’s losing control – in his personal life, in his drinking habits and even at work. The question I think we’ve all been asking ourselves is: How far will Don fall? Was his drunken tagline-spewing meeting with the folks from Life cereal the proverbial “rock bottom”? How about the hookup with the waitress from whatever diner to whom he let slip his real name? Probably not, in both cases, but you might have entered “The Suitcase” wondering if Don was going to turn things around, or continue to give us more of the same, or descend into a Duck-like fall.

That’s how we entered last week’s episode. But how did we come out of it? If you’re reading this, you know how “The Suitcase” ends: a squeeze of Peggy’s hand, with a shared look of thanks and understanding, and then Peggy at the door: “Open or closed?” “Open,” Don says. Peggy exits. Don sits at his desk and turns his attention to the newspaper. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street” plays in the background.

Those final seconds are hopeful, right? I thought so, too. But I wasn’t sure. So when I watched the episode again this evening, I paid close attention to the end of the scene. And here’s what I found:

The scene’s suggestion of uplift is not just derived from Don asking for Peggy to leave the door open or from the gentle song playing in the background but from both at the same time. The first notes of “Bleecker Street” can be heard just as Don says the word “open.” The desire for this obsessively closeted man to keep the door open, paired with the tender music, suggests that perhaps Don Draper has, through the death of his friend, become liberated him from his lies. It could be argued that this is a turning point, that Don feels he can leave behind his dual life, that now he will let the rest of the world in. That’s all very straightforward.

But what I realized the second time I watched this episode is what a remarkably different mood those final seconds would have if “Bleecker Street” began playing not with the episode’s final word but just after the episode’s final image. By that design, after Don says “open” there would be 10 seconds of office noise, eventually ending on the shot you see atop this post. Cut to black. If “Bleecker Street” begins to play there, with the black screen before the first credit, I think that same song comes off as melancholy instead of hopeful. (See the video at the bottom of this post.)

Under this design, Don’s request to keep the door open wouldn't be a suggestion that he’s letting the rest of the world in but that he’s continuing to hide behind the same old fa├žade: In the past eight-or-so hours he’s experienced the death of a "family" member, fought and then bonded with the person who’s now his closest living friend, gotten drunk and puked in the bathroom and nearly gotten his ass kicked by a former coworker (not in that order), and yet for all outward appearances, in that final shot, it’s business as usual.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. Start “Bleecker Street” with “open” and the mood is hopeful. Give us 10 seconds of office noise before we hear “Bleecker Street” and the tone changes entirely. So, given the way the scene actually plays out, the final scene is intentionally hopeful, right?

Well, maybe. Because even though “Bleecker Street” begins to play at precisely the moment in which it will create a hopeful mood, well, do you know the initial lyrics to “Bleecker Street”?

Here they are:

Fog's rollin' in off the East River bank
Like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street
Fills the alleys where men sleep
Hides the shepherd from the sheep

So we’ve got fog, a shroud, men sleeping (unaware) and a shepherd who can’t be spotted by the sheep. If that doesn’t perfectly articulate the way Don Draper has lived his life to this point, what does?

So, given the above, it’s time for a little speculation: Has Don turned a corner? Or is it back to business as usual (more hiding in plain sight)? What does that final scene say to you?

Update (9/9): Here's the footage that applies to the piece above, including a roughly cut version in which "Bleecker Street" doesn't begin until the closing credits.


Scott Nye said...

Excellent analysis. Even though I am hesitant to apply song lyrics to the scene they play over, they do fit awfully well in this instance.

My initial reaction also senses a hopeful tone, but this season has already provided a few misdirections in that regard. The end of 4.1, with Don presenting an entirely new persona stands out most of all, though I recall having similar "whew...NOW Don will pull through" moments only to see him sink even lower.

As always with the best television, we'll never know 'til we know.

Craig said...

I love this. Mood is so crucial to "Mad Men"; at its best, it leaves you with a handful of different thoughts and feelings at once.

I thought the end of "The Suitcase" was both hopeful and melancholy, and designed to be that way for the reasons you mentioned. Imagine if the episode had ended a few minutes earlier, with Peggy lying down on her couch at work. Weiner & Co. even trick us into thinking that with an initial fade-out (right before Peggy is rudely awakened). "Bleecker Street" would have taken on an even more despairing meaning there.

My only misgiving with this transcendent episode (anyone who watched it had to have known that we were seeing something special) is that it's brought the "shippers" and "anti-shippers" out in force -- those who want (and perceive) a relationship between Don and Peggy and those who are adamant that there's nothing there. (Even Matt's always perceptive analyses have a habit of being declarative about ambiguity.) My two cents: "The Suitcase" is less about whether or not Don will change than how Peggy is likely to change after learning more about Don. It's hard to see her taking his put-downs quite so personally after going through what they did together.

With so many memorable lines of dialogue being quoted, a pivotal exchange seems to have escaped: When Peggy tells Don that she's gotten to the point where she can't tell a good idea from a bad one, and Don replies that there's really not much difference. That's an important lesson for her to have learned for the next time Don shoots down nine of her ten ideas.

Jason Bellamy said...

Scott: "We'll never know 'til we know." True. And with Mad Men sometimes you don't even know until sometime after that. Like you, I'm hesitant to pay too much attention to the song lyrics. And, yet, as this scene shows, with a show that's this detail oriented, we can't rule them out either. One of the other effects of starting the music 10 seconds before the credits, after all, is to allow us to hear that initial verse.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I love the scene with Peggy getting cozy on the work couch, a kind of Mona Lisa smile on her face (or did I imagine that?).

I know what you mean about the "shippers," and I admit that I've only thought about a traditional or romantic link between Peggy and Don in moments when a voice in my head is silently whispering: please don't go there, please don't go there.

I agree with you that Peggy will leave this episode with the most change. Of course, she's always been a character especially capable of change. Building off your point, though, I think the shared look with the hand squeeze was mutual recognition of the fact that "we understand one another" -- personally and professionally.

That's a good point, too, about the line about the narrow line between a good and bad idea. This being Mad Men, Don doesn't just say that, he actually demonstrates it -- an episode ago with Life, and then in this episode with the ideas he shoots down only to later consider them, or with his initial boxing idea, which seems quite good but ends up being abandoned.

Peggy's evolution is the heart of the show. It's so satisfying when she moves to another level, and that's what happened in this episode.