Tag Archives: entertainment

Mad Men’s Midseason Finale Was About Feeling, Not “The Feels.”

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for the season finales of Scandal, The Vampire Diaries, and Grey’s Anatomy. MAJOR SPOILERS for Season Five of The Good Wife. MAJOR SPOILERS for the Mad Men Season Seven Episode “Waterloo.”


This piece was sparked by a piece by Joana Robinson in Variety, praising the quiet, non-sensational death of Bert Cooper. Robinson compares the simplicity of Bert’s (off-screen) passing—“An old man died”—to the increasingly common shock factor attributed to shows like Game of Thrones and Scandal but which has also permeated more understated dramas like The Good Wife. Especially during finale season, quiet moments are rare—it seems that show runners believe they must pile on death after death, twist after twist, to make the viewer feel something when in fact it has the opposite effect. Good examples (and here I admit several of my TV “guilty pleasures”) include the cruel death of the President’s son on Scandal and Damon Salvatore’s “death” on The Vampire Diaries. For Scandal, the death of a child (a character the audience barely knew) was used to advance the plot of the show and to bring some humanity to President Fitzgerald Grant, a character that I’ll admit has never been likeable. In The Vampire Diaries, Damon’s “death” is made moot by the fact that I cannot imagine Ian Somerhelder’s character will not be resurrected; I imagine The CW must fear the wrath of the vocal “Delena” fandom.


It is interesting that some of the showrunners and writers at the pinnacle of shock TV are also some of the same people who skillfully craft more subtle emotional scenes. Take, for example, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh)’s exit from Grey’s Anatomy in the 10th season finale. Shonda Rimes (also the showrunner for Scandal) does tease the audience by implying that Cristina may have been at the scene of a serious accident, and yet does not show Oh or fans of the character the disrespect of killing her off. Throughout the episode I waited for this to happen, my anger slowly building. Instead, Yang’s last moments on the show were subtle and I’ll admit, made me tear up. Cristina leaves in a cab after wonderfully brief goodbyes with several central characters with only Meredith to see her off—“What do you need, an I love you or something? I love you!” Then Cristina reappears, still feeling that her time at Seattle Grace was unfinished. Instead of finishing with a big surgery, she and Meredith “dance it out” in an on-call room in a nice throwback to the show’s early episodes. The character gets the ending she deserves—a new career that allows her to grow and honors her talent—the ending I wish I could have seen for The Good Wife’s Will Gardener.

What does any of this have to do with Mad Men? Well, the latest episode, “Waterloo,” got me thinking about shows that allow the viewer to feel real emotion, which got me thinking about a popular meme/fan phrase having to do with “the feels.” “The feels” is an ironic way of distancing oneself from emotion caused by TV, books, or movies: I am not feeling anything, “the feels” are just out there and are separate from who I am as a person. At the beginning of summer, right after the brutal TV finale season and in the midst of summer blockbusters, the quiet moments in Mad Men were both refreshing and moving. I must admit, it’s been a long time since I felt this way after an episode of Mad Men: the desire to just sit awhile and think about the episode.


Mad Men’s “midseason finale” (it seems odd to call it that but that’s on AMC for breaking up the final season) had many elements that predisposed me to like it better than anything in the last two or three seasons of the series. First of all, as someone who was obsessed with the space race—and the Apollo missions in particular—as a child, the innocence and optimism of that moment in America’s history added a gentler element to a series that can sometimes be cynical and cold-blooded. Also, with the exception of Joan, these are the best versions of the characters I’ve seen in awhile. Peggy is self-assured (even in her doubt) and intelligent rather than petty and whiny. Rodger, far from the drug-using post-midlife crisis having Rodger of Season 6 is more thoughtful, touched by Cooper’s death and willing to fight for his team despite being told by Cooper that he’s “not a leader.” Pete is comical without being slimy and provided one of my favorite lines of the episode: “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh…he shouldn’t be rattled!” (about Don).


Even Sally intrigued me in this episode as Betty and her female friend acknowledge her growing beauty, comparing her to a younger Betty. While this moment was nice to see after so many seasons of Betty treating Sally so badly, I was even more intrigued by Sally’s choice to kiss the younger, geekier brother of the visiting family rather than the older brother who walks shirtless around the house and complains that the space program is a waste of money. One review I read said that Sally made the “safer” choice but I read it as a choice to separate her identity from her mother’s and to follow Don’s advice “not to be so cynical.” The boy’s response—“what do I do now?”—is touchingly relatable and I was happy to see Sally have an awkward, age-appropriate moment after so many instances when she was forced or chose to act much older.


And finally, “Waterloo” showed the Don Draper that I like most—slightly humble, fully present with the people in his life, and in many ways a family man again. This is not the Don Draper who kept Sylvia Rosen in a hotel room all day without even her book for company (although that Don Draper can’t be separated from this newer version which is part of the series-long mystery of Don’s true nature).  A big theme of this season has been family, and allowed viewers to expand their definitions of what family actually means. “Waterloo” and the previous episode show a variety of vignettes featuring alternative families. There’s Don and Megan’s sophisticated family with no children of their own and with Don’s children peripheral, a life that always seemed immature for Don in many ways, their parting neither sad nor unexpected. There’s Don’s improving relationship with Sally. There’s Peggy’s quest for a family that included her dinner with Pete and Don at Burger Chef (and the entire Burger Chef campaign), and a surprisingly touching moment with her ten-year-old neighbor Julio. There’s Joan, her mother, and son, a unit that didn’t need a man (particularly Bob Benson) to complete it. There’s the scene of Rodger watching the moon landing with his son-in-law, ex-wife, and grandson that acknowledges the absence of his daughter and is interrupted by the death of a man who was like a father to him.


Finally, there’s the SCDP team in a hotel room-also watching the moon landing with expressions of awe and wonder-with Don and Peggy seated together on a bed sharing the only two beers she could find. This lovely tableau, and the events of the entire season, reminds the viewer that Don’s quest to be reinstated at SCDP is about more than just his addiction to “the work” (the reason he uses to convince Ted that staying in advertising won’t increase his suicidal feelings). It’s about family—the family that Don never had growing up, and the family he never really had with Betty or Megan. And Don and Peggy are the heart of the office family, their relationship providing some of the show’s finest moments: Season 4’s episode “The Suitcase,” their dance to Sinatra in the episode preceding “Waterloo,” and Don’s pride during Peggy’s pitch to Burger Chef. I’m not one who feels the need to define their relationship. It’s too adult and complex to be placed in the “father figure-daughter substitute” box, neither entirely platonic nor significantly romantic; they are simply two people who understand each other and need each other in ways that they can’t explain in words. Don and Peggy say everything that needs to be said in sidelong glances and seemingly innocuous conversations: “We got Burger Chef. What are you doing?” “Going back to work.”

The complexity of Don and Peggy’s interactions exemplify why this episode catalyzed so many emotions in me that went far beyond “the feels.” It was an episode about death, about maturity, about change. It demonstrated how some people can change, but that change might not be permanent. It shows that family, identity, and relationships are not simple or reducible. The choice to end with Don’s vision of Bert Cooper performing a Broadway-esque song and dance routine underscored what felt to me like a throwback to the show’s earlier seasons. Although the characters have lived through the JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King assassinations, the early days of Vietnam and hallucinogenic drugs, and even Ginsberg’s psychological break which he attributed to SCDP’s new computer, the reversion to an earlier more sentimental era in entertainment felt appropriate, as does Apollo 11 as a set piece. One small step for Don felt like a giant leap for Mad Men.

Image Credits: AMC and Google Images.

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Allegiant Review: SPOILERS

WARNING: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for Allegiant, the final installment in the Divergent series. DO NOT READ ON unless you have finished the book. 

I’m sure that author Veronica Roth is tired of being compared to Suzanne Collins, although arguably the Divergent books (like most popular YA dystopian novels) are derivative enough to invite the usual generic comparisons: The Giver, Ender’s Game, and of course The Hunger Games. However, Allegiant, Roth’s conclusion to the Divergent series suffers from much of some of the narrative issues that also plagued Collin’s final installment Mockingjay: taking the protagonists out of the context of the first two books and spending great amounts of time on exposition only to attempt to breathlessly cram game-changing action into the third act.

The world Roth created in Divergent and Insurgent (in which society is divided into five factions based on their primary personality traits) however derivative, was at least interesting and posited some significant arguments about nature vs. nurture and what qualities or traits are most (or least desirable) in leaders and governments. Unfortunately, Roth falls back on a well-worn literary trope by revealing that all the action in the first two books takes place in a snow globe of sorts.

We learn that Tris’s city is actually part of a social experiment resulting from a eugenics war that wiped out most of the U.S. Instead of giving the reader an ending that takes into account all of the events of the previous books; the fractured Chicago becomes a pawn in a far less interesting conflict taking place in the “real world.” It is interesting that like Mockingjay, most of the narrative of Allegiant takes place in a self-contained environment: in Mockingjay the underground headquarters of district 13 and in Allegiant the remnants of O’Hare airport, now the locus of a shadowy government operation. However, it is jarring that Roth moves away from her earlier themes of identity and choices and opts for the larger allegories of racism, poverty, and the perils of unethical science.

Another jarring choice by Roth is to split the narration of Allegiant between Tris and Tobias (aka “Four), Tris’s strong, reserved, yet attractively damaged boyfriend. This split unfortunately shifts the narrative away from a strong female protagonist to her far less interesting romantic counterpart (teenage girls, disagree as you may). Tobias, as has been said of Twilight protagonist Bella Swan, is a cipher—there is not much unique about him aside from a history of parental abuse that serves as a commentary on themes of damage and wholeness. During the segments when we are inside Tobias’s head, I wished we were back in Tris’s. Like Katniss, Tris is flawed—ornery, stubborn, bordering on arrogant, but she is at least a multifaceted character. Roth has done such a good job making Four seem like a mysterious, reserved character whose main role is Tris’s love interest, that I as a reader felt I didn’t know him well enough to engage in his perspective.

In a move so obvious that I should have been smacked over the head with it from the beginning and not during the buildup to the book’s “controversial” ending, it soon becomes clear that shifting part of the narrative to Four is done only to add a coda to the story that Tris can no longer tell, because, well, she’s dead. Just like Marius in Les Miserables holding the last note of “A Little Fall of Rain,” Tobias is the one who lives to tell the tale. Unlike many other readers, I personally respect Roth for choosing the more honest of the two options for ending a hero narrative—the implausible survival of the hero amid the carnage of other, more minor characters, or the heroic sacrifice in which the protagonist does not live to see the better world that he/she fights for. This is not a shocking death in the tradition of George R.R. Martin but rather takes the final logical step by not forcing an awkwardly cheery epilogue Harry Potter-style. Many I’ve spoken to believe that Katniss Everdeen should have gone out in a blaze of glory, and that her eventual marriage to Peeta is a diminishment of the character and unrealistic given the violence she’s seen and participated in.

I believe that there are merits to both endings—Mockingjay shows that even the most damaged and broken among us can eventually heal, while Allegiant counters that sometimes the bravest and most deserving do not survive, leaving their loved ones to carry on. Although Allegiant has many flaws, Roth does do a masterful job of creating a situation where the reader cannot imagine a scenario in which our hero could live and still be the authentic character we’ve come to know. The ending of Allegiant, while unsettling (especially, I imagine, to younger readers) also rings true to its depiction of a dystopia in which people, even young people, can die senselessly in unjust wars. In my heart of hearts, I myself longed for the sunlit scene where Tobias and Tris watch their children play in a better, more compassionate world—but in life it is impossible to avoid grief and death. Roth refuses to condescend to her teenage and adult readers by making the same tenants hold true in fiction.

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Starks, Star Trek, and Superheroes: The Role of Death in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Warning: This blog post contains BIG spoilers for both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Game of Thrones Season 3 Episode 9: The Rains of Castamere. Also contains spoilers for season one of  Game of Thrones and the second and third films in the original Star Trek film series (albeit spoilers for movies that have been around for decades, but still).  

The reaction to Episode 9 of Game of Thrones has been all over the Internet lately, and for good reason. As those of us who read the books have been anticipating for some time, the episode featured the infamous “Red Wedding,” scene where Robb and Catelyn Stark, two of the show’s most beloved characters, are unexpectedly executed. The scene in both the show and the books is shocking, and the creators of the TV show added additional horror to the scene by also brutally murdering Robb’s pregnant wife (who survives in the book). Fan reactions have ranged from witty repartee to invective filled rants against HBO, George R.R. Martin (the books’ author), and show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Several fans’ tweets and comments demonstrated a frightening loss of perspective (one particular fan called the episode “Worse than 9/11”), one that has sparked both parody (particularly by readers of Martin’s books who have long waited for their friends to catch up with them) and an honest conversation about the function of death in fantasy in general and particularly in Thrones.


Popular George R.R. Martin meme

In a behind the scenes look at the episode, Benioff and Weiss each spoke articulately about how the show differs from not only other fantasy but from other genres including superhero movies. I’m paraphrasing Benioff a bit here (watch the full video below), but the insight struck me both as a fan of the show and as a human being who has experienced personal loss and the death of loved ones. “This is the rare fantasy that shows just like in real life, that the best of us sometimes don’t make to the end, don’t make it to old age…the sense that the most beloved characters might not make it to the next episode.” Both writers go on to remind fans that this is the show that killed Ned Stark, the beloved central character, in the show’s first season. In contrast to movies like The Avengers where you know none of the leads will die because the sequel is already on the books for 2015 (with the exception of Agent Coulson who gets his own resurrection in the upcoming television show Agents of S.H.E.I.LD.), Thrones presents a fantasy that reads a little closer to reality. A world where bad things happen to good people, where people die randomly and in unexpected ways, where there is no dichotomy of light and dark or good and evil but simply flawed humans making decisions and facing the consequences.

Superheroes aside, the summer entertainment that for me provided the starkest (no pun intended) contrast to the dark fantasy of Game of Thrones was J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster sequel to 2009’s Star Trek. Into Darkness, the film’s subtitle lets us know right away that we are in for act two, for The Empire Strikes Back, basically, that things are about to get real. And real they get. Or do they? The emotional core of the film hinges on a scene where Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) sacrifices himself to save his ship and her crew. In a reversed homage to that giant of Trek films, Wrath of Khan, Spock stands on one side of a glass door watching his friend die of radiation poisoning. The scene is emotional and even provoked a few tears, mostly thanks to Zachary Quinto’s fantastic performance. I myself had that holy @#$% reaction that Thrones fans are (or should be) accustomed to by now: respect for Abrams for evading the predictable Hollywood ending combined with a despair at the loss of our hero, the apparent moral center of the film’s universe.


A darker Trek? Source: AP.

As a sequel to a film where the screenwriters invented a new timeline to avoid being tied down by the Trek cannon, it should have come as no surprise to me that other rules of our own universe don’t apply—in this case, death being, so to speak, the final frontier. One barely has time to mourn for Kirk or root for Spock to avenge his death before we find out that SURPRISE! Injecting him with magic blood from the film’s super villain can save Kirk. It’s a deus ex machina that requires a major leap of faith from the viewer, and this in a genre where resurrection is an everyday occurrence. At least the original Trek films waited until the next film (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), to reveal to the audience that Spock isn’t quite as dead as we initially thought.  But none of this seems to matter because Kirk lives! Cue the standard hospital bedside scene: bright lighting, gallows humor (“You were barely dead,” quips Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Spock declaring his undying friendship, etc. Bromance is alive and well, just like our hero.

It’s easy to write this ending off as typical blockbuster fare, unless, like me, you’re left with the question of what Kirk’s sacrifice really means when it comes with no consequences. What emotional weight does Kirk (or any character) hold when they triumph consistently, when the final scene of Into Darkness, like its predecessor, finds the whole family together ready for the next adventure? Admittedly, this scene makes us feel good—comforted knowing that we will see these familiar characters again in a year or two. However, the film’s payoff also brings up more troubling questions. In this age of terrorism and war, in the wake of the Aurora shooting and Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombings, how are fans to accept that in most franchises the hero never dies? Kirk’s fate is especially significant in a film that is dedicated to post 9/11 veterans, those who know firsthand the cost of sacrifice. Yes, it’s just a movie, but what about those who have actually lost a loved one in a random, horrible, tragic way? Are they comforted by the escape into a universe that operates on kinder and fairer principles? Or do they prefer a show like Game of Thrones? Should entertainment provide an escape from death and tragedy, or should it, like all art, cause us to reflect more deeply on our own lives? As Mr. Martin himself said in an interview, “If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?”

In a broad sense, Thrones is our world on a smaller scale where battles are fought with daggers, not bombs, where the instruments of death are arrows and swords, not semi-automatic weapons, where the choices we make for love or in the pursuit of power have consequences. In the interview, Benioff and Weiss go on to remind us that at the end of most films, the hero is still standing. Spiderman is always alive and raring for the next sequel. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where children aren’t necessarily safe in the hallways of an elementary school, where loved ones are taken from us too young by cancer or heart disease, or acts of violence. But it’s that reality, that chance that we could, at any minute, lose everything that gives weight and meaning to our lives, our decisions, and our actions. “It’s the kind of thing that hammers home that everybody’s life is precious and precarious. When you can’t take for granted that a character you love on the show is going to be around forever, it makes you pay more attention to them,” says Weiss in a recent interview. How should we treat our loved ones when we don’t know how much time we have left with them? What are we willing to sacrifice for our beliefs or for the people we love when we know that our choices have consequences? How should our artists and our media, deal with the reality of death? I certainly don’t have the answer, but as a student of culture I find it a conversation worth having.







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