Looking around at reviews, I get the general impression that the feeling about last night’s episode is it’s a B episode in an A season. Which is okay; there’s been so much intensity this season in some episodes that lighter—and dare I say more soapy?—episodes help relieve pressure. But really examining the take Marc and I had versus other critics, I realize this episode was far denser than it initially appears. Most recaps I’ve seen so far focus on how the episode was tying up loose ends, but Marc and I, as you’ll see in the video, mostly focus on the future. This episode was tons of set-up for future payoffs. Some of that set-up, we suspect, was perceived by the audience as mostly background stuff.
As “The Orange Couch” has gone on, one of our goals has been to really explore as many of the allusions and the historical and artistic context the show draws on. Which, in prep for the show, usually means just trying to decipher where the title comes from and learning about that reference. That hasn’t been too hard generally; we know who Shirley Temple is and I’ve read a lot of Sylvia Plath. But in the lead-up to this, I realized I didn’t actually know much about “Dark Shadows”. The movie looks wretched,* but it turns out that the original series is streaming on Netflix. So I fired it up, figuring I’d start in the second season when things got good (which is actually where Netflix starts the series at all), and that I’d take in a couple of episodes to get a feel for it. What happened instead is a bit of a “Dark Shadows” binge. That show rules. It’s like eating candy. Deliciously campy candy, replete with silly vampire stuff and great 60s hair. It also meant we went into this episode with a much different mindset than most people, who were only comparing it to the rest of “Mad Men”. Watching a bunch of DUM DUM DUM soapy stuff made the homage to soap operas in this episode so much fun.
I think soap operas tend to be viewed as “women’s entertainment”, and so their self-awareness and their skill at story-telling is discounted. (As well as their ability to churn out an astounding amount of product with limited resources.) But “Mad Men” actually owes a great debt to soap operas. To write a great soap opera, you have to be able to go a long time onscreen with “nothing” really happening—i.e., lots of relationship-building and table-setting, but no big plot twists—without boring your audience to death. As is suggested in this episode, one way soaps do that is with delightfully hammy acting, which “Mad Men” obviously has to shun. But mostly they do it by making you care about the characters so that their little dramas seem as important to you as they are to the characters. “Mad Men” takes this best part of soap operas and uses it to great effect. Soap operas love the drama of mundane family bullshit, and “Mad Men” smartly sees that’s because supposedly mundane domestic concerns are actually the stuff of great drama. I’m glad they played tribute to their soapy elements. I mean, think about it! A mysterious and deceased ex-wife? That’s some soap opera shit right there, even if the lesson the characters learn is that our secrets often only have as much power as we give them. The soap opera is a form that’s basically dead—they’re all getting cancelled in favor of reality TV and game shows—so maybe that’s why it’s finally okay to pay loving tribute to it.
Using “Dark Shadows” as a frame of reference allowed us to see the Michael storyline differently, as you’ll see in the video, as well. Todd VanDerWerff describes Michael as the “villain” of the season, but if he is, he’s a soap opera villain like Barnabas Collins. You root for him, because he shakes things up. Plus, Don has it coming, doesn’t he? He’s been such a genuine villain for so long, and he’s never really paid for it. Maybe Michael is here to dispense a little cosmic justice. I have more thoughts on that in the video, plus we speculate about what’s going on with Peggy.
*Megan disses “Dark Shadows”! Clearly, she just hasn’t seen it.
*When Peggy starts to talk about New Yorker cartoons, I immediately thought of, how a few years ago, there was a meme of recaptioning every New Yorker cartoon with “Christ, what an asshole”. Example:
And sure enough, Michael immediately started to act like an asshole. A loveable, vampiric asshole. Coincidence? Is anything on this show?
Thoughts about this episode? About “Dark Shadows”, or soap operas in general?
*By the way, it can’t be a coincidence that this came out the same weekend as the movie released, can it be?