They can't all be gems. Written by Erin Levy and directed by Scott Hornbacher, "Dark Shadows" felt like the first substandard episode of Mad Men, season five — and not just because it was quieter than other chapters, in terms of both audio quality (not much pop music or underscoring) and overall tone (thwarted, disappointed, needy). There were no opulent crowd scenes like the one that ended "At the Codfish Ball," no visionary montages scored to Beatles songs à la "Lady Lazarus,” no viral-video-ready scenes of violence or sex (though Pete Campbell's film-noir-ish fantasy about Beth, his commuter train buddy's wife, edged in that direction).
And that's all fine and dandy: The quietness, at times the silence, was often deftly observed. The problem for me (your mileage will vary) is that dialogue, key moments, and certain performances just didn't play. As always, there were superbly acted, often devastating scenes, plus a couple of intertwined main themes that I'll deal with shortly. But a lot of "Dark Shadows" felt misjudged or half-baked. I rarely have such complaints about Mad Men.
The line-running scene between Megan and her actress pal Julia — who was auditioning for Dark Shadows, the Tim Burton–Johnny Depp film version of which coincidentally opened Friday — had germane and enjoyable aspects, but it was ruined by too-scripted-sounding lines ("It's just so easy to be you, from your throne on 73rd and Park!") and a bum performance by Meghan Bradley, the actress who played Julia. Any scene involving little Bobby Draper, a character that kid-hating souse W.C. Fields would have teased to tears back in the day, rings false to me, because the boy playing him is so obviously a Child Actor. He hammers every important word in a sentence, Whack-a-Mole-style, and the directors seem unwilling or unable to stop him. As Beth, Alexis Bledel is a visual knockout (the elegant lines of her body seem to have been drawn with pen and ink), but so far I'm getting nothing from her performance except "plot function." As self-destructive suburban adulteress, she's a nonstarter, even when she's pictured in dream-seductress mode as she was here. The most piercing moment in the episode — Betty's discovery of Don's love note to Megan, which sparks her disclosure of Don's first marriage to Sally — was weakened by the sound of Don's voice reading the note in voice-over, an old-movie touch that turns pathos into affectation. It's only just sentences long, and beautifully written; couldn't we have just read it for ourselves, with the ticking clock and neighborhood noise in the background?
The very worst bit of writing in the episode was Betty's statement to Henry: "It's so easy to blame our problems on others. But really we're in charge of ourselves. But I'm here to help you, as you're here to help me. We'll figure out what's next." It felt like placeholder dialogue that was supposed to be replaced with real dialogue later, but wasn't. [Update: Readers point out that this is probably Betty regurgitating what she hears in Weight Watchers meetings. But it still seemed of a piece with other dialogue in the episode: flat in both writing and performance.]
That whole business with Don Draper trying to find his creative mojo back by glomming onto Michael Ginsberg's Sno-Ball ideas was even more vexing. It had a great deal of promise, but the filmmakers muffed it by not clarifying just how bad Don's sinful devil pitch was. Ginsberg's "Hey, kids, throw a snowball at an authority figure" campaign didn't strike me as genius, either, but at least it had some anti-Establishment pizzazz and didn't seem like tonally inappropriate oversharing, which was the case with Don's pitch. (Sinfully delicious? Forbidden fruit? Project much, Don?) Both the concept and execution were so weak that when Don first broke them in the late-night Dictaphone scene, I cringed and thought, The poor bastard is really off his game here. Then came scenes where the younger writers and execs were obviously humoring him because he was Don Draper (good!), and the punch line of that subplot, Don leaving Ginsberg's superior campaign in the car so as not to appear "weak" (even better!), was itself weakened by not seeing Don in the pitch meeting that ultimately won the account. (The pitch as presented didn't seem strong enough to get a "yes" from anybody; "Kids love cartoon devils" wasn't enough for me.) Absent a full-on display of Don Draper smoke-and-mirrors charisma — or even a vague sense of what sorts of people the clients were — I didn't believe that the devil campaign could win the day for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, even with Don leaving Michael's pitch in the car. Or I should say, I believed it only because Mad Men asked me to.
These clunky elements marred an otherwise satisfying if uncharacteristically (for season five) muted chapter. "Dark Shadows" was a great title, self-reflexive in a good way. It tied in with the overall darkness of this season, with its free-floating unease and threats of random violence, at the same time that it name-checked the beloved, campy vampire soap (see David Edelstein’s piece on the show here) that provided grist for the Julie-Megan scene. "I've seen a soap opera," Megan told her actress pal Julie, who was auditioning for a then-new show titled Dark Shadows. "I haven't seen one this bad." Then she allowed that she'd love to win a part in "crap" like Dark Shadows, speaking for every actor who has ever drawn breath. Throughout, the episode examined and mocked the phrase "soap opera" even as it embraced its basic pleasure: the thrill of watching people say and do dramatic things as stridently and inelegantly as possible.
This was Mad Men talking about watching TV and about itself as a distinct series, at the same time that it was adding detail to its characters and ongoing story. As with any serialized narrative, a big part of this show's appeal is a story line that's at once tightly interlaced and open-ended, with characters rotating in and out of season-long arcs and figuratively or literally changing their identities over time. (Don Draper's battlefield identity theft and secret first wife are very daytime soap.) The problem here was the tinny execution, which made Mad Men seem like the pretentious daytime soap opera that detractors claim it is. That's a shame, because the notions were sound, and for a good part of its running time "Dark Shadows" examined them without overwhelming the heart of any scene.
Secrets and failed impulse control are at the heart of all soaps, and all soap-opera-inflected shows, period — Mad Men included. The episode is filled with scenes of people tactically withholding secrets, doing bad things in secret, and exposing secrets because they cannot control themselves. "Dark Shadows" tipped you to what it was doing in its clever opening shot of fat Betty weighing food: impulse control is expressed via the weighing, secrecy in the subsequent scenes of Betty (and later, Henry) sneaking food.
Pete shouldn't have bragged about a New York Times writer interviewing him for a Sunday magazine story after the fact, but he couldn't control himself, and he failed again late in the episode when he woke Don up early Sunday morning to inform him that SDCP had been cut out of the story entirely. "Don't wake me up and throw your failures in my face," Don rightly snapped. “I’ve driven you to this because I can’t control myself,” Betty says, after stumbling upon her diet-famished husband frying a steak late at night. At Bert Cooper's behest, Roger asks his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jane to pretend they're still together so that the Manischewitz clients will think SDCP is a Jewish-friendly ad agency, then hires Michael under the table to write a prototype campaign without alerting Peggy or the other writers. That's two secrets right there, just related to Roger. "I work for the agency," Michael tells Roger. "I don't know if I want to keep a secret from Don." We know the price of his silence: several hundred dollars. (Love the running gag this season of employees soaking Roger for cash.) From the way Jane stared at the client's dashing son — a crispy slab of beefcake in a natty suit — I suspect she's going to face impulse control and secrecy issues of her own pretty soon. "If something goes on between the two of you, you better pretend you're still married," Roger tells her, coupling impulse control and secrecy in a single line.
Don secretly invades the writers' room and discovers the "sippin' ice" in Michael's "shit I gotta do" file, spins them into a campaign, and sells his own spinoff devil idea to the client by impulsively omitting Michael's superior pitch. (Don Draper, handsome devil.) When Michael discovers Don's betrayal, rather than control himself in the name of professional advancement, he literally rushes to confront Don and gets verbally slapped down. "I feel bad for you," Michael says, speaking so frankly to Don that you'd think he was Peggy. "I don't think about you at all," Don snarls, a statement that we know is untrue because we saw Don leafing through Michael's notes in secret.
The best and most powerful secrecy and impulse control subplot involved Betty, Sally, and Megan. Betty exposes the secret of Don's first marriage to the real Mrs. Draper in order to lash out at her ex-husband and his young, thin wife in their opulent Manhattan apartment. (I love the scene of Betty silently staring at Megan dressing, perhaps picturing the body she used to have; it was so much more eloquent than any of the lines this week.) A nice touch that feeds (pun intended) the episode's central idea: when Betty discloses the first Mrs. Draper's existence to Sally, she reflexively takes a bite of celery, no doubt wishing it were a fistful of chips.
Sally at first doesn't know how to handle this explosive information, which probably should not have been revealed to her at such a tender young age, and certainly not in such a hateful and juvenile fashion. (Just when I start to really feel for Betty, she does something to make me hate her again. She's real that way.) Confronted by Sally with this newly dropped bombshell, Megan yammers and stammers about the two of them being "friends," but for the most she part seems ill-equipped to handle the first dire test of their stepdaughter-stepmother relationship. "Are you going to make yourself cry?" Sally asks Megan, a great callback to the earlier scene in which Megan explains how to fake tears (more impulse control, actor division).
When Megan tells Don about Betty's nefarious act, Don's first impulse is to call Betty and chew her out, but he restrains himself when Megan correctly assesses Betty's true motivation: "If you call, you're giving her exactly what she wanted, the thrill of having poisoned us from 50 miles away." The subsequent scene of Don discussing Betty's treachery with Sally might be the best Don Draper parenting moment yet seen on Mad Men. There was real warmth in their interactions and true maturity in Don's phrasings; he told the girl exactly what she needed to hear, telling her the truth without burdening her with details she wasn't old enough to process and secrets she was too immature to keep. He really does seem to have mellowed, and for all her own flaws, Megan's influence is a big part of that.
More impulse control: Don looks furious when he first calls Sally over, but tamps down his anger and addresses her in even, rational tones. "Your mother doesn't care about hurting you, she just wants to hurt us" is the only line of Don's that sounds as if he's oversharing with a child; divorced parents shouldn't say such things to children even if they're true. But given the exceptional finesse Don displayed elsewhere in the scene, this feels forgivable. And in any case, Sally is a sharp kid who has a knack for diplomatic phrasing that most of the adult characters lack. "Daddy showed me pictures and they spoke very fondly of her," Sally tells Betty in the kitchen later. Both the line and her unemotional delivery of it make her father and his new wife seem like altogether better, wiser people than her mother, and put the emotional ball back in Betty's court. Betty restrains her true feelings about the exchange until Sally leaves the room, then lashes out, knocking a box from the tabletop.
I'll close by asking for an ad hoc Betty Draper roundtable discussion here. Do you think Betty is believably unlikable, oddly sympathetic, or a punching bag for series creator Matthew Weiner and his writers? "Mad Men 'Dark Shadows' proves Betty is an emotional vampire," blares a headline on the San Francisco Examiner's next-day review, summing up the consensus in my Twitter feed last night. Is it the character or January Jones's performance that set so many viewers' teeth on edge? Do you feel, as I do, that a lot of the fat Betty stuff this season feels like narrative piling-on, despite the thematic sharpness of aspects like the Weight Watchers meeting scenes? Don't the weight gain, the pills, the crushing loneliness, and that Henry Jamesian mansion of doom feel a bit like karmic payback for sins that are, in the greater scheme, a lot less grave than Don's? How do you solve a problem like Betty Draper?