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Mad Men Recap Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel”

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Mad Men Recap: Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel”


AMC’s Mad Men ends its first season on one hell of a high note, with what is probably the series’s most Sopranos-esque episode yet. Sopranos seasons generally wrapped up most of the continuing story arcs in the penultimate episode, reserving the finale for a more meditative episode built around the series’s central themes, and Mad Men has done the same—although in this case, the theme is one that didn’t necessarily leap out before as one of Matthew Weiner’s central concerns. As my illustrious colleague David Cote said, “who’d have guessed that in the end, it’d be all about family?”

When I learned that the season finale was called “The Wheel”, the first thing that came to mind was a relentless forward-moving force crushing everything in its path—a symbol of progress, yes, but the kind of aggressive, dehumanizing progress represented by the fearsome gears in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. A metaphor for change that happens whether people like it or not. The second association was with the Grateful Dead song the episode shares its title with, which I recalled as being pretty upbeat but has lyrics that are darker and more resigned than I’d remembered (”The wheel is turning/and you can’t slow down/You can’t let go/and you can’t hold on/You can’t let go/and you can’t stand still/If the thunder don’t get you/then the lightning will”). As David Dodd says in his annotations to the Dead’s lyrics, the wheel is “a potent symbol throughout human history.” Of course, wheels go backwards as well as forwards—in space, if not in time—and along those lines, it’s the concept of the past as a thing that can be seen but not touched that makes the episode so deeply moving.

The episode begins about three weeks after “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, with Don and Betty discussing their plans for Thanksgiving. Despite Don’s more sympathetic view of his father-in-law after the events of “Long Weekend”, it seems he’s less than thrilled about the prospect of spending the holiday in Philadelphia with her family (Betty mentions a brother who I don’t believe has come up before). In the past, Don might have wanted to stick around in order to score some time with Midge or Rachel, but when he says his reasons for staying put are professional, there’s no reason to doubt him. In his new role as a partner at Sterling Cooper, Don is “Duck” Phillips’ superior, but we soon see that Duck is far more driven and aggressive than Roger Sterling ever was, and Duck’s drill instructor-esque treatment of the junior execs makes it imperative for Don to lead by example.

Of course, maintaining a unified front with Duck isn’t the only additional responsibility that comes with Don’s new role at the agency: Bert Cooper minces no words as he tells Don that things like his tryst with Rachel Menken just won’t fly anymore. The issue of Don’s fidelity also comes up when Francine tells Betty how she learned that her husband Carlton is having an affair. When Betty deploys the same tactic (calling a frequently-dialed number found in a phone bill) and learns just who Don has been calling late at night, her seasonlong arc reaches a powerful climax.

I was delighted by the return of freaky young Glen Bishop, who proves himself the only person with whom Betty can be completely candid. Their scene together illustrates the crux of her problem: Don’s backchannel conversations with her psychoanalyst are a bigger betrayal than any affair, and there just doesn’t seem to be anybody around whom she can just be herself. At her next therapy session, she ingeniously deals with the situation by addressing the one topic her shrink would never in a million years narc about to her husband—her raw, unvarnished thoughts about Don. “He doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t know what family is,” she says. “I feel sorry for him but should be angry at myself for putting up with it.” It’s a pretty safe bet that her shrink won’t be comparing her to an emotionally stunted child again anytime soon.

Betty also makes it clear that while she may not necessarily know the identities of any women Don is sleeping with behind her back, she’s certainly not so naïve as to be unaware of his straying, even before Francine came around. Sex with Don, she says, is “sometimes what I want, sometimes obviously what someone else wants.” Don’s big scene with Rachel last week proved that he can be a surprisingly naïve guy himself at times, and the his ignorance of Betty’s perceptiveness sets up the episode’s chief message, a lesson that both Don and Harry Crane learn the hard way: If you take your family for granted, they’ll slip right through your fingers.

Until Don got on the phone with the desk clerk at the hotel, it never occurred to me that Don might be as yet unaware of his brother Adam’s suicide. Surely, I figured, Adam had included a note in the package of photos and memorabilia, which he appeared to mail immediately prior to hanging himself. The discovery of Adam’s death drives the lesson home for Don, paving the way for the absolutely devastating scene in which he makes his presentation to the clients from Eastman Kodak. As we saw with the Right Guard campaign way back in “Ladies’ Room”, the period vogue for space-age futurism has a lot of appeal to advertisers, but Don has an almost supernatural gift for being able to see through flavor-of-the-month bullshit and come up with ideas that connect with consumers at a primal, almost subconscious level.

“Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged at a level beyond flash if they make a sentimental bond with the product,” Don tells the clients. As we learn from the heartrending scene that follows, the secret to Don’s insight as an adman is that it’s not the public he’s seeking to engage, but himself—he’s so damaged that the only way he can understand his own feelings is through an ad campaign. Nostalgia, he says, is “literally pain from an old wound. A twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” The slide projector, he continues, “isn’t a spaceship—it’s a time machine. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” In Don’s case, he’s talking about a place he’s never been, ” a place we know we are loved.” Immediately thereafter, he realizes he has the potential to build such a place at home in Ossining, and as he rides home alone, silent, in a train full of merry revelers, he clearly resolves to change his ways the second he walks through the door.

When Don tells Betty he’s decided to accompany her to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, it seemed like an ending that was just a little too pat…so naturally I was pleased by the reveal of the “real” ending, which inverts the conclusion of The Sopranos’ first season. Tony is able to find the place he knows he’s loved when he gets shelter from the storm (to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan, appropriately enough) at Artie Bucco’s restaurant along with Carmela, A.J. and Meadow. Don, however, is left with nothing but an empty house, on the eve of a holiday that’s all about connection and togetherness. I’ll refrain from quoting the full lyrics of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (released in 1963, so it’s not period-accurate…not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it’s a hell of a choice to accompany the ending.

It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe/That light I never knowed,” says the narrator of the song, essentially describing what Don has never known, and which Betty offered him, only for Don to bat it away. And, like Don, the narrator “once loved a woman, a child I’m told” to whom he “[gave his] heart, but she wanted my soul.” The song ends with one of Dylan’s patented spiteful fuck-you endings, which doesn’t really reflect Don’s position as “The Wheel” concludes, but there’s no disputing the relevance of the first lines of the final verse: “I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe/
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell

We’ll find out when Mad Men returns in June 2008.

Finally, an overstuffed edition of the weekly grab bag:

Duck Phillips gets a lot of interesting bits of business in this episode. I like that he’s so unfiltered as to bluntly ask Don to help him look good his first month on the job. I also like how he turns the screws on Pete by making it obvious to all and sundry that he only scored the Clearasil account via nepotism. And I frakking love how he had the class and smarts to let Don’s pitch speak for itself (“Good luck at your next meeting"It was also hugely telling, in light of what we heard last week about how he crashed and burned in London, that he refused Don’s offer of a glass of bourbon. A story line about the state of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1960s and what the culture of recovery was like in the Kennedy era has a huge amount of potential, and I’d love to see Weiner et al tackle the subject. I really enjoyed Mark Moses’ work during the first two seasons of Desperate Housewives, and it’s very amusing and appropriate to see him joining Mad Men just as John Slattery is rejoining Desperate Housewives.

Gotta say I was disappointed that Peggy was pregnant after all, as I thought a story about a woman simply getting fat would be much more interesting. Still, the timing is right on the money for her to have gotten knocked up by Pete during their first tryst, before the birth control pills took effect—“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” took place in March, exactly nine months before Thanksgiving. Her scenes with Ken Cosgrove, which revealed how little she knows about the psychology of her own gender, reinforced my suspicion that she’s the main vessel Matthew Weiner will use to explore the evolution of feminism, and I’m now more eager than ever to see what will happen to her (I’m operating under the assumption that she gave the baby away for adoption, by the way).

Bert Cooper’s advice to Don at the end of “Nixon vs. Kennedy” suggested that Don might try to cultivate Pete as an ally, but it’s pretty obvious that isn’t going to happen. I loved how Pete used Don’s own words against him, effectively daring him to put up or shut up by bringing in a new client, and how Don responded by not only hitting the ball out of the park with Eastman Kodak but by also making life worse for Pete by promoting Peggy. The indignant look on Vincent Kartheiser’s face when Peggy gets the news is beyond classic and makes it more obvious than ever that he’s an insanely talented actor.

Since I saw the first two episodes of the new season of House via a lo-res, somewhat pixelated DVD-R that Fox sent out, it wasn’t until I saw the third episode in HD that I recognized the aggressive young doctor applying for a spot on Greg House’s team as Anne Dudek, Mad Men’s Francine. Based on her work there, she’s a much better actress than I initially assumed.

Pete is emasculated as ever as the season ends, and drunkenly sulking off in a huff isn’t going to change anything for him at home. It’s also interesting to learn that Trudy’s father is a salesman-turned-executive, which suggests he might not be as wealthy as many fans previously assumed. Watching Pete get humiliated over and over was a great source of pleasure throughout the season, so I certainly hope Matthew Weiner doesn’t go any easier on him next season.

The gradual development of Ken Cosgrove and Harry Crane has also been a treat, and while we still know very little about them, everything they did and said in this episode just felt right relative to the few facts we have. I’ve come to be more impressed with Aaron Staton and Rich Sommer with each passing episode and very much hope that the series helps them land plum movie roles during Mad Men’s hiatus. And who didn’t love seeing Harry in his undies?

Although Matthew Weiner had no problem blatantly rewriting history by having Don coin Lucky Strike’s 1917-vintage “It’s Toasted!” slogan in 1960 back in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, all the slide projector stuff is basically spot on: Eastman Kodak introduced the Carousel 550 projector in 1961, making it entirely reasonable for an ad campaign to be under development in November 1960. I can’t find any info on how much the projector cost when it first went in sale, but at the time the original model was discontinued in 1966, it cost $137, or $179.50 with an optional zoom lens model. In today’s money, the two projectors would respectively cost $846.23 and $1108.74. And the projector we see at the meeting is indeed the original model.

Unfortunately, Duck Phillips’ references to members of the Eastman family being back in the lab doesn’t hold water: George Eastman, who founded the company and invented the concept of film on a roll, never married, fathered no children and left his entire estate to the University of Rochester. Wikipedia tells us that during his lifetime, he donated more than $100 million (in early 20th century dollars!) to several colleges, including—very impressive for the time—substantial donations to historically African-American universities, among them the Tuskeegee Institute and the Hampton Institute. In 1932, at the age of 77, he shot himself rather than spend his remaining days in a wheelchair, leaving a suicide note that can only be described as beautifully succinct: “My work is done. Why wait?”

Last but not least, I really love the photos from the wrap party that AMC posted to its web site, in which the cast members really seem to be enjoying themselves and each others’ company. In the eleven photos up there, nary a fake smile can be found. It’s great to see that the folks responsible for making this remarkable series have what appears to be a strong, legitimate sense of cameraderie, and it makes me anticipate future seasons all the more.

For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.