Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men And The Power Of The Unspoken

The power of life is not just found in words and actions, but in the scenes we encounter and the silences found within them. One of the most impressive aspects of Mad Men is that it is able to speak so powerfully... by not speaking.

Sunday night's episode didn't just convey a number of seminal events in the series; it did so with the unspoken power Matthew Weiner so deftly uses to his advantage... and to the benefit of viewers.

First, though, some background:

Think of some of the more unforgettable moments in the history of Mad Men: Peggy, Joan and Faye in the elevator; Peggy and Dawn, silently looking at each other in Peggy's apartment; Don and Peggy looking into each others' eyes in multiple situations (the hospital; the end of season three; episode 11 of season five, one week ago); Joan and Greg after Joan's rape; Joan and Lane in the second half of the season five opener, and then later in season five after Lane punched Pete -- these and so many other moments gained power because of the silences between the artfully-arranged words of a first-class Mad Men script. Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Harris - the best of the best actors on this show convey an astonishing range of emotions in and with their faces, especially their eyes. Much as it's easy to focus on the ball in any sporting event when non-ball action is often more determinative of a team's successes or failures, it's also true that in a dramatic presentation, it's easy to focus on verbal communication when non-verbal communication is just as  important.

Exploring this theme of the unspoken a little more deeply, consider the ending of "At The Codfish Ball" from earlier in season five. The episode unpacked the thought worlds and emotions of five characters in particular: Megan, her two parents, Don, and Sally. When the five of them are shown sitting at the table near the very end of the episode, their simple presence together in one wide-frame camera shot says so much in itself about what had happened over the previous 62 minutes of television. The unspoken act of gathering those five characters is meant to convey a theme, much as an elevator shot of three professional women is meant to convey another theme. Showing Don and Peggy in one extended scene develops their relationship and, with it, the flow of the series. Showing Peggy and Joan in a particular kind of scene makes a commentary on the different choices and paths taken by women in the 1960s. You get the picture.

In Sunday night's episode - the penultimate one of season five - there were so many unspoken scenes that carried such an enormous amount of weight and, moreover, resonance. Forget the dialogue of the characters; the mere presence of certain people in certain places became a part of the narrative Matt Weiner intended to advance.

Lane wanting to initially commit suicide inside a Jaguar shows how utterly trapped Lane was by the mere idea of going back to England in shame and humiliation.

Don's final scene with Glen - a boy who created an outsized persona for himself in a younger age (wanting to be Betty's husband) - paired two people who have experience at reinventing themselves... which is precisely what Lane was unwilling and unable to do.

Betty's scene with Sally showed that for all of Betty's weaknesses as a mother and for all of Sally's misgivings about her biological mother's integrity, the two are still bound by a connection that can never change or disappear. Betty didn't experience a transformative moment - she still relished gaining the upper hand over and against a flustered and worried Megan - but she was able to experience a pure moment of affirming motherhood, a moment that transcended both her struggles and Sally's frequent (but not quite permanent) hatred of her, a hatred built by - yes - Betty's reactions to Glen Bishop.

The way Joan was treated at the partner's meeting was in many ways defined by silences between and among words. The way Megan and Glen awkwardly stared at each other presented a moment in which two very uncertain people - out of their element, worried about their respective partners - were trying to find more of a foothold in lives that felt very unsettling for them.

All of this was wrapped inside an episode in which Lane's death provided a powerful message, albeit one drenched in unbearable sadness: while reinventing oneself cannot and should not be a lie - a foundation for deceit - human beings do have to start over on many times in their life journeys, finding new ways of bringing an authentic and whole self into new, paralyzing, and witheringly complex situations. Lane reinvented himself in a positive way by embracing the good elements of American culture and its creative energy, but he lived a lie by trying to alter SCDP's books instead of asking Don - ironically, the man he trusted most in the workplace - to help him out. (Don would have done so, too.) Moreover, Lane loved America to the point of death: so great was his desire to stay in the country and succeed on a specific set of terms that when he felt he couldn't do so, he gave up.

Mad Men unites themes and motifs this way on a regular basis. What's seen and unseen is all of one piece. Verbals and visuals merge to create a larger message which can be seen, yes, but also heard... and felt... and absorbed. It's hard to describe with words alone, and that's precisely why the realm of the unspoken speaks so loudly on the best television show in America.


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