By Mad Men standards, this week’s episode, “The Color Blue,” written by Kater Gordon and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, gives viewers a couple surprisingly major plot developments. In the first, new information is revealed to the audience, as we learn that Sterling Cooper is for sale again, seemingly setting up a season-ending conclusion to the “British” storyline that roughly mirrors Duck Phillips’ (Mark Moses) arc in season two.
The second, decidedly more major, development involves information known by the audience since season one, and which has loomed over the series ever since as its biggest we-know-it’s-coming-eventually moment (larger even than the Kennedy assassination, which continues to cast its (fore)shadow over each episode of season three). Betty Draper (January Jones) opening Don’s (Jon Hamm) secret drawer and discovering the box that contains both divorce papers from Anna Draper and the pictures and fragments of his past as Dick Whitman is one of the very few explicitly plotted Mad Men moments we’ve all known is coming; in Mad Men’s own hushed sort of way, it’s on the level of the Galactica crew discovering the final cylon, or the audience finding out what put John Locke into his wheelchair.
Like both of those, it’s a hand that could have easily been overplayed, and regardless will undoubtedly disappoint many fans. As Betty discovers that she’s not the first Mrs. Draper, the scene is set for Mad Men to finally unleash so much of its pent-up, repressed energy that has been so thoroughly hidden behind gender roles and good manners. Yet, instead of a melodramatic breakdown in which Betty throws down the suburban housewife bit and finally says her piece, the show, in its usual reserved way, gives us ... nothing. Well, not nothing, but certainly no fireworks, as Betty internalizes this development just like all the others, setting up a final scene that ranks right up there with Mad Men’s most barely constrained and viciously uncomfortable moments.
The lack of fanfare with which “The Color Blue” greets its big moments is hardly surprising, as this is a series that rarely confronts its larger issues directly, focusing instead on the ways in which the characters move around those issues, therefore relegating everything large and sweeping to something we only catch glimpses of through momentary cracks in the surface. Mad Men’s methods of offering us these glimpses are typically as subtle as anything we’ve come to expect from the show, and are usually left to be inferred by the audience.
Seldom has this been as true as in the final scene of “The Color Blue”, set at a celebration of Sterling Cooper’s 40th anniversary. The event, as we know, is a façade. The British owners are selling the company, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) has no desire to celebrate his greatest accomplishments as it merely highlights that they are all in the past, Roger (John Slattery) and Don hate each other, and Don’s general discomfort in these situations is such a foregone conclusion that the show has no need to make it explicit. Yet there they are, cheering and clapping, as Roger disingenuously introduces Don’s keynote speech.
Earlier in the episode, when John Hooker (Ryan Cartwright) refers to an address Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has prepared for the party as “rousing,” Lane asks him: “Churchill rousing or Hitler rousing?” It’s a humorous reference to the grand histrionics of speechmaking, but of course when Don steps up to the podium to give his climactic speech the episode fades to credits. It’s a reminder that it’s not the big moments that make this show tick, but the small moments that surround them. In this case, these few moments before Don’s speech offer us one of those cracks in the surface I mentioned—the sort of glimpse we rarely see. Of course, it comes to us via Betty Draper, whose presence at the event is the biggest ruse of all.
January Jones’ performance here will be rightfully remembered as amongst this season’s best, as Betty appears barely contained, applauding the man who has been lying to her for years. She could erupt at any second with an outburst rivalling the histrionics of any speech, but of course she doesn’t. The camerawork, however, is every bit as important as the performance: The shot of Don at the podium is not the slowly approaching or slowly retreating view we’re typically given. It’s stationary, and angled strangely—for some reason, it’s as utterly uncomfortable as the entire fraudulent event. But with the final shot of Betty abruptly ceasing her applause, we understand why: It’s from Betty’s point of view. The shot gives us a new perspective on Don, because Betty herself now sees her husband differently. This is beyond even her discovery of Don’s affair in season two. Something has fundamentally changed.
The use of a perspective shot is important, both in terms of style and content, as perspective itself is one of the episode’s major themes. Mad Men gives us a lot of information, but we’re not typically given perspective. With the possible exception of Don’s and Betty’s respective hallucinations of their pasts and their families, we haven’t spent a lot of time in the characters’ heads. The camera moves fluidly and methodically, providing an omniscient view but always keeping us at arm’s length; it questions, but never enters, never deploying the handheld shot or any other device that might put us on the ground with the characters.
“The Color Blue,” however, may be Mad Men’s most explicit treatment of perspective as a theme. The title refers to a bedroom conversation between Don and Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer), his new mistress, who, in one of her increasingly unsettling (to Don, anyway) displays of domesticity, tells Don about a child in her class who asks how we can know whether the blue he sees is the same as the blue everyone else sees. Anecdotally, this question seems like a common shared experience—it represents our first foray, as children, into metaphysical problems and the first time we began to question the foundations of what we consider real and true. Don, seemingly missing the point of the exercise, dismisses a problem concerning universality by referencing something particular: his own perspective as an adman, the same insular world that so many of Mad Men’s characters seem constrained by. Advertising, he explains, is about “boiling down communication,” and, ever the practical realist, he seems to claim that producing the same reaction in a group of people indicates a shared experience.
Mad Men has dealt with this theme before, though typically in much larger strokes. The show itself, after all, is about the very particular world the characters have created for themselves, and much of the show’s tension comes from the collision between this world and the rapidly changing outside world of 1960s America. It’s a collision that very few of the characters, being so trapped by the narrow perspective of their milieu, seem particularly prepared for.
As Todd pointed out in his piece on this season’s premiere, series creator Matthew Weiner has largely avoided any overly plotted moments and twists external to the characters themselves, because he knows that the viewers provide the tension a sweeping narrative offers themselves. We all know things are about to change, and so Weiner is free to allow the era’s historical weight to develop in the background, and move between the spaces where the show’s major dramatic conflict takes place.
Mad Men is therefore left with an audience perspective largely incongruous with that of the characters. For all the show’s historical recreation and meticulous attention to verisimilitude, the audience is essentially cut off from its world. We hold knowledge that the characters do not. We see what’s hiding around the corner, and the way it casts its shadow over everything that happens on screen. We cannot see the Mad Men world from the characters’ perspective, and therefore are not asked to suspend ourselves to look at the world through Don Draper’s eyes. Rather, we are required to bring our own perspective to the table, with all the knowledge and hindsight that comes with it, a move that brings Sterling Cooper’s world into collision with our own.
This dramatic irony does far more than create tension. It sets into motion many of the show’s major themes, including the fragility (and obstinacy) of identity and the elusiveness of truth and value. It provides us with hints not only as to how we should relate with the characters, but also how they relate to each other. Don points out on several occasions throughout the series that the staff at Sterling Cooper does more than sell products, they sell perspective, a way of looking at the world. Don is in the business of universalizing his own perspective, as he says to Miss Farrell: “The truth is people may see things differently, but they don’t really want to.” (Their conversation takes place in a very hushed, post-coital scene, with Hamm delivering his lines barely above a whisper, yet he hits such a subtle note of self-assuredness that it comes across as Don Draper bravado at its most arrogant.)
It seems important, then, that Mad Men so effectively builds barriers between differing perspectives and worldviews. Mirroring the characters’ lack of preparedness for the sweeping social change to come, perspective in Mad Men is so sedimented that any break can only be painful, causing those involved to question not only how they see the world, but how they see themselves. Like a child’s questions concerning the color blue, it brings into doubt the foundations of what they know and consider true. There will certainly be many valid interpretations of Betty’s decision not to confront Don, and future episodes will undoubtedly develop the plotline further, but personally, I see a character who has based so much of her own identity on her perspective of a man she thought she knew. It’s not a simple matter of Don hurting her, as he has in the past; if she brings Don to task on this, she not only brings him into question, she brings herself into question as well.
We see this elsewhere in the episode, as well, such as Paul’s (Michael Gladis) “my God” moment with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Paul spends much of the episode awaiting divine inspiration, with jazz, smoke and the smell of scotch pouring out from underneath his door. He even goes so far as to converse with Achilles. (Really! Well, okay, Achilles the janitor.) When the moment finally arrives, he proceeds to fall into a drunken stupor before writing his genius idea down, of course forgetting it by morning. To Paul this is absolute catastrophe, akin to Homer dreaming up the Iliad one morning only to forget it by afternoon. Don and Peggy both react with sympathy and a small degree of solidarity: it’s surely one of the most frustrating experiences for a writer. Yet at the same time neither seems particularly troubled, and Peggy, with nary a hint of divine inspiration, plays off of some offhand comment Paul makes to develop a great idea anyway, one which Don quickly jumps in to put a button on. Paul’s shocked reaction is hardly a grand event, but in many ways it’s an essential character moment. He’s realizing that Peggy, like Don, sees blue differently than he does. It’s a gap he cannot bridge with his Ivy League education or reading.
A much more poignant example of the same event happens in the car between Don and Miss Farrell’s brother, Danny (Marshall Allman). It reminded me of two scenes from season one. The first was when Don thoroughly owns Midge’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) unbearable Bohemian friends with quips such as, “make something of yourself,” “the universe is indifferent,” and most memorably, “you can’t.” The second is the scene with Don’s own brother, Adam (Jay Paulson), in which he gives Adam $5000 and encourages him to remake his life. When Don says, partly to Danny, but mostly to himself, “I swore to myself I’d try to do this right, once,” he is, for the first time, acknowledging his failure with Adam. It’s a profoundly painful scene, as despite Don’s efforts he can do no more than he did for Adam: giving Danny some money and sending him away.
But Don is also discovering the root of his failure with Adam. When he dresses down the Bohemians and tells them to make something of themselves, it’s effective, because we all know that they are more than capable of doing so; they are intelligent, idle people. Don’s air of superiority is not rooted in classism or some sense of inherent ability. It’s rooted in his being the proverbial self-made man and his knowledge that any of those Bohemians could do what he has done, but haven’t.
The epilepsy with which Danny has been “afflicted”, however, is something foreign to Don’s perspective and something he has trouble processing. When Danny reacts badly to Don suggesting they can “still change things,” we catch a brief glimpse of the Don that shot down Midge’s friends, firing back, “does that just sound stupid to you?” It’s Don that’s shot down here, however, as Danny explains his situation, and claims that he “can’t do” anything that Don can do. The line “It’s not a question of will” seems especially important, as it’s what separates Danny and Adam from Don, and also from those kids in Midge’s apartment. It’s not a question of will, it’s simply that Danny can’t see blue the way Don does, and neither could Adam.
Some other stuff:
1. Todd floated the idea to me that the ’Kinsey theater’ mock ad was an allusion to the JFK assassination. It’s not something that I personally caught, but it fits with the assassination’s increasingly looming presence over the third season.
2. Talk about perspective: Betty’s casual racism continues to play its part in her relationship with Carla (Deborah Lacey), as she seemingly thinks the Drapers aren’t required to go to church as often as Carla is. It’s almost as uncomfortable as Betty’s reaction to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
3. Even little things in the episode are about the different ways in which people can see the same thing. The hang up and the contrasting assumptions it causes Don and Betty to respectively jump to, is a fascinating example.
4. “The driver’s Chinese!”
House contributor Luke De Smet is a freelance writer and disgruntled warehouse stock boy from Edmonton, Alberta, where he is regular contributor to SEE Magazine. Follow him on Twitter or check out his blog Bring Me Back a Goat.