For those who saw Mad Men‘s “Hands and Knees” earlier this week, you know a lot of plot was rolled out. For those who follow Mad Men (and its forbearer, The Sopranos), with three episodes remaining in the current season it’s around the time the show moves from glacially paced meditations on characters and their stations in life to seismic shifts in culture and the characters’ twining personal and professional lives, which usually get met with little reaction at all. I concur with Slate‘s Michael Agger on the clumsy way in which plot moved forward in “Hands and Knees,” which he thought was best illustrated by the not-too-subtle crack on the head a character received from his father’s cane, leaving him in a state the episode title refers to.
But if the show is also about characters evading difficult decisions by refusing to act, which Salon‘s Heather Havrilesky observed in her episode recap and is a central theme the show shares with The Sopranos, it is also about shifting viewers’ expectations by deliberately occluding them from witnessing events that other shows would foreground. We don’t see Joan, Roger, or Betty’s weddings. We don’t see Paul register Southern black voters. We get the most limited interactions with the people of color who exist, if at all, on the borders of the main characters purview, most of whom could probably tell us a great deal about the people who ignore them. We may never see Sal again, even if the termination of a major account at SCDP may allow for his return. The most we tend to get is the aftermath, with the characters either denying the heft of their realities or not noticing them at all. To take it back to Havrilesky’s point, if very little actually happens on Mad Men, it is because the characters refuse to let it. Thus the events that would traditionally be of interest to viewers get sidelined, slipping away from the characters’ minds.
This can be a really frustrating way to assemble a televisual narrative, and I certainly understand if it’s off-putting to some. Kristen at Dear Black Woman, wrote a provocative essay for Antenna about the show’s strategic marginalization of black people wherein much of her pleasure in reception seems to derive from an as-yet-unfulfilled hope that people of color will gradually ingratiate. Speaking for myself, the limits of withholding people, information, and events from viewers took a toll on me as a fan this season. This is primarily because the central narrative arc is about Don Draper floundering as an ad man, divorcé, friend, and father, illustrated by self-destructive actions that I think will curry sympathy and ultimately favor, which I don’t think he deserves.
Draper’s attempt to get back in daughter Sally’s good graces with tickets to the Beatles’ historical Shea Stadium concert following a harrowing unplanned take your daughter to work day in “The Beautiful Girls” is another case in point. Though the threat that Draper won’t score the tickets after promising Sally looms over much of the episode, it’s peripheral to concerns that the Defense Department might cotton to Draper stealing the life of a commanding officer during his service in Korea to hoist himself out of his bleak personal and professional prospects. Of course, Draper does follow through and maintain his reputation as a fun weekend dad. He’s also aligned with the Beatles at the end of the episode by staring at his comely secretary to the strains of an instrumental version of “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” somewhat stealing his daughter’s emotional thunder.
The subplot is worth it alone to see Sally’s unbridaled excitement over the news, but I would’ve liked to see her at the concert. As yet, I only have actress Kiernan Shipka’s thoughts on the Beatles. Naturally, as it’s a big cultural event that could reveal much about the impacted character, it’s obscured. But thinking about Sally’s excitement alongside the peer female Beatles fans Barbara Ehrenreich identifies with in Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex or even Robert Zemeckis’ terrible I Wanna Hold Your Hand, I’m curious how the Beatles and the nascent significance of Boomer youth culture and shifting gender, sexual, and race politics will serve as a catalyst for Sally. This is also why, in addition to getting a guitar for her birthday, I’m still waiting for a meaningful exchange between Sally and Peggy Olson, who is working through similar negotiations–sometimes misguided–of the restrictions placed on her gender and age. I hope I get it, and I hope I see the aftereffects of the show on Sally that are more psychically resonant than a case of laryngitis.