Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 9: “Dark Shadows”
Written by Erin Levy
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
Mad Men has never been a show where plot twists and explosive action sequences reign supreme. Anyone who’s watched more than a season, knows that its main concern is character. Although the period setting is often intrinsically linked with the characters on screen, like so many other dramas in the current Golden Age of television, everything merely acts as a vehicle that informs these characters and their plights. What the show does so incredibly well, is that it blends the more evocative aspects of this time period and pairs it with inclusive, identifiable character hurdles. These hurdles can be experienced by any Don, Dick or Peggy. Where Mad Men’s current acclaim and undoubted enduring nature will lie, is in the show’s innate ability to comment on the human condition and draw this with such a subtle, yet imaginative touch.
We’re well over the halfway mark of season five, and the ability of Weiner and his writers to express themselves in new, and interesting ways never seems to cease. Usually, by season five of most shows, the creative team have been forced into changes. Often this is due to staleness and a predictability with both the show and its characters. However, Mad Men it seems suffers from none of these problems. More often than not, the show delivers what it promises.
This week we rejoin the Francis household where Betty’s struggle with over-eating frames episode nine, while the concept of gluttony, both literal and figurative, is strongly rendered. Not only does the show suggest this leads to petty competitiveness, but ultimately that it culminates in failure.
The still bloated Betty attends Weight Watchers in an attempt to control her compulsion to eat, which as we soon discover is leaving an unsatisfied void in her life. As Henry explains his own professional failings, having jumped ship in search of greater power, Betty reveals potentially her first adult philosophy in nearly five seasons. It appears that her meetings have educated her on positive means of dealing with her problems. “It’s so easy to blame our problems on others, but really we’re in charge of ourselves”, she claims. Is this the moment we’ve all been waiting for? Has Betty finally grown up in the face of her own challenges?
However, it’s not long before her own petty, immature competitiveness gets the better of her and she tries to poison Sally against Don and Megan. The irony is that perhaps Sally, for all her immature sniping at Megan and Don this episode, is indeed more mature than her own mother. The fantastic symbolism of Betty’s near vacant dinner plate, and her false expression of fulfilment at Thanksgiving Dinner, highlights that her gluttony, both dietary and family related, have lead her to this unfulfilling place.
Meanwhile, over at SCDP, the copious amounts of work completed by Ginsberg in comparison to Peggy, leads Don to note “Peggy really got buried with Heinz”. In a metaphoric showing of gluttony, Peggy’s obsession with Heinz lead to her lack of success on other accounts. Not only are we reminded of Peggy’s lack of success on the Heinz account, but of her greed for extra cash from Roger on the Mohawk account, which also ended in failure.
Pete has very little to do this week, but chimes in to simply add credence to the focus of the episode. His over competitive nature and self confidence eventually culminates in what Don describes as his failure with the New York Times. He also indulgences in an office fantasy involving Beth.
In the meantime, Roger, whose experiences with Jane (buying her a new apartment and later dining with an over-competitive Bernie) underlines that monetary and sexual gluttony can leave one just as equally unfulfilled.
Furthermore, Julia points out to Megan, she already has everything – a”throne”, though she still demands more from an acting career. Deriding the soapies script, Megan proves she has lofty expectations of her acting vocation. Angrily, her friend Julia, all but labels this greedy.
Interestingly, three characters find success in ‘Dark Shadows’. One of them is Don, whose not-so-noble actions cause him to clash with Ginsberg, but fundamentally, he secures the Sno Ball account. The other is Sally, who gains a top mark for her family-tree picture; and may have potentially pruned herself from the cycle of negativity that runs in Betty’s family branch. While finally, Megan’s friend Julia wins an acting role. These experiences personify triumph rather than defeat. As is customary with Mad Men, there are always those that prosper and others who fall. After all, which viewer can’t empathise with either of those outcomes?