“The Virtues of Being Bad”
By Colin Hart
8.4 / 10
Mad Men is one of the only Great Shows that isn’t afraid to dish out a lower-tier episode every now and then. It’s a useful strategy, actually — staggering the clunkers to give the masterpieces more impact. It’s an old-school television approach, akin to a football team establishing the run in order to set up the pass.
For all of Mad Men’s apparent pretensions, the show will sometimes strive to be nothing more than perfectly average, which is quite an endearing quality.
However, the slow-paced duo of “Ladies Room” and “Marriage of Figaro” coming at this early juncture in the series might cause some initial apprehension. Much like its predecessor, this is another episode where nothing much happens. And even though Mad Men will eventually become famous for these types of episodes, that status has yet to be earned.
“Marriage of Figaro” operates within a bifurcated structure, the first half taking place at the office, and the second at young Sally Draper’s birthday party. Director Ed Bianchi combines both elements in a distinct, dreamlike manner, as if the entire day is slowly floating past. At work, Don Draper seduces the agency’s newest client, department store owner Rachel Menken, but the two aren’t able to follow through after Don reveals he’s married.
When Don gets home, he gets drunk at his daughter’s birthday party and comes back hours later with an apology puppy. The party scenes are the most tedious Mad Men moments so far, so I don’t necessarily blame Don for going AWOL. Still, the golden retriever is another reminder that Don is, for lack of a better term, a “world-class heel.” He’s a terrible father, and an even worse husband.
Nevertheless, watching Don drift aimlessly through life is compelling television. It doesn’t matter if he’s shopping for cufflinks or drinking a beer; he’s that charismatic. Unfortunately, whenever he steps away, the resulting storylines can be quite boring. The other characters simply aren’t ready for the spotlight.
The most intriguing scene of the episode occurs right at the beginning, when a stranger on the train recognizes Don as someone named Richard “Dick” Whitman. He references fighting in Korea together. For the first time, Mad Men is raising questions: What’s the deal with Don’s past? Who is Dick Whitman? Unfortunately, this is the only time it’s addressed.
The rest of “Marriage of Figaro” settles into a workaday groove. Pete Campbell returns from his honeymoon, and a newly-divorced, single mother named Helen Bishop moves in down the street from the Draper residence. Lots of office gossip, coupled with suburban housewife gossip. A dreadful pairing.
These types of humdrum Mad Men episodes will be executed with much more precision and passion once the show gets rolling, but for now, they remain uninteresting. Luckily, the energy will pick up now that these early placeholders are out of the way.
Mergers & Acquisitions
- The biggest theme established so far is Don’s increasing world-weariness. Here’s a man who seemingly has it all but doesn’t know what he wants. Comparable to David Chase and The Sopranos, creator Matthew Weiner wants his Mad Men audience to ask, “Is Don a good person?” And, even more significant: “Can Don change?”
- Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “P.S. I Love You” closes the episode. Quite a poignant moment as Don slumps on the floor, drunk off his ass, while Betty is at a loss for words. Vinton was also famous for his cover of “Blue Velvet.”
- Other musical selections include excerpts from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” which plays in the background as Don takes photographs of the birthday party. It’s a great scene, and seems to be an homage to the home-videos montage from Raging Bull.
- Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advertisement causes a big hubbub among the Sterling Cooper account executives. The minimal campaign was conceived by Helmut Krone of Doyle Dane Bernbach, and it revolutionized the advertising industry with its stark, full-page design, black-and-white imagery and sans-serif font.
- Don starts to fall in love with Rachel Menken after she opens up to him about her somewhat troubled childhood. In particular, she talks about her dogs, and how a good dog is all a young girl really needs. That’s probably why he buys Sally an apology puppy — he’s been absent her entire life.
- “Marriage of Figaro” was written by Tom Palmer and directed by Ed Bianchi.
- “I want the Chinamen out of the building by lunchtime.”
- “Draper? Who knows anything about that guy. No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.”