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Spoiler Alert Thursday: Strange Symmetries

Last season, three shows used pregnancy as a plot device — Mad Men, Dexter, and Weeds — a device that continues to play a role in the new season. This season, I’m noticing a strange symmetry between House and Curb Your Enthusiasm: suddenly two cantankerous characters have a reason, other than social pressure, to be nice. For House, it’s a way to keep himself off drugs and thereby maintain his sanity. For Larry, it’s all part of a plan to get Cheryl back by putting together a Seinfeld reunion and casting her as the ex-wife George is trying to get back. House is much more sold on the idea of niceness than Larry, perhaps reflecting the fact that niceness is preventing disaster for House but being used as a means to a good but non-essential end for Larry. Both do have the chance of relapsing, as shown in the most brilliant recent scenes — when House kidnaps the neighbor in what seems like a setup for a ritualistic serial killing and when Larry decides to let the alienated NBC executive die (triggering the closing theme, in what seems like a new area of “meta” humor for the show) but thinks better of it and flips a coin to decide between the satisfaction of saving the guy’s life (and thereby the all-important reunion show) and the satisfaction of seeing him dead.

Unfortunately, the House writers continue their misguided obsession with Foreman and his love life. The first episode after the two-hour premier was almost unbearable as House faded into the background. The second was better, insofar as it explored the moral discernment of the only other interesting character on the show — Cameron — and even managed to breathe new life into Chase. I’m not sure I approve of the whole “I switched the blood out to kill the genocidal dictator” plotline as an ongoing plot arc, but at least it’s better than the dull romance between Foreman and Thirteen.

In other news, I’ve found the last few episodes of Mad Men absolutely amazing. First there’s the lawnmower thing, then an entire episode in which Don is reduced to pathetic bitchiness, and then Betty’s unbearable Bettyness most recently. I’m amazed at how poorly Don played his cards, trapping himself at Sterling Cooper just when it was becoming least satisfying — especially after he had so masterfully deployed his lack of a contract against Duck. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Don can handle pathetic characters with aplomb, as when Pete threatened to expose him or Duck wanted to essentially emasculate him, but he is not yet ready for the big leagues when bigshots like Hilton or Cooper really push him. The scenes where Don was on the wrong side of the desk make it clear: he’s not really the smooth operator he pretends to be, and he never really will manage to become what Hilton and Cooper simply are. He’s had a remarkable string of luck and done a remarkable job of taking advantage of it, but his streak appears to be just about over.

As for Betty, she’s quickly surpassing Carmella Soprano as the TV wife who’s walking a razor’s edge between being a complex character and being insane. The most revealing moment for me was when she was listing all the things she hated about home and left out what was clearly the key point: she hates her kids. A commenter over at AUFS thinks that we should view Don as potentially destroying his daughter’s life in particular, but it seems increasingly clear that it’s really Betty who’s hurting Sally the most — and it’s not because of Don’s infidelity so much as the fact that he made her a mother when she had no desire to be one. Betty wants to be the seductive cosmopolitan American woman in the hotel cafe, and her resentment that the trip had to end outweighed her enjoyment of that lifestyle while it lasted. That might also inform her bitterness about the contract issue — she may be “taken care of,” even if he winds up leaving, but that also means she’s irrevocably stuck with the kids.

In the end, Betty wants to be the mistress, not the wife, and that’s what the trip to Rome allowed her to play-act. And symmetrically, Don’s mistresses fill the role of what we contemporary folk living in the wake of feminism have come to see as that of the wife: an equal, an independently accomplished woman, and for that reason also an older woman rather than a wide-eyed young girl (which is why he never slept with the secretaries at his office). Those mistresses made him different, cooler, more free — but the relationship with the teacher, whether it ultimately happens or not, will take him in a different direction of becoming just another suburban husband whose prime is behind him. His amazing trajectory from being a poor hick to being one of the true powerbrokers in the world will have ended at a comfortable upper-middle-class existence.

That’s no mean feat in itself, but it’s also not quite what Don had envisioned for himself as we can see from his excitement at the prospect of the potential job splitting his time between London and New York — and that very incident shows Don’s true limitation: he can seize an opportunity that’s been absolutely handed to him, but he doesn’t know how to create opportunities. The jet-setting lifestyle of power Cooper dangled in front of him did materialize with Hilton, but only on the most superficial level of requiring travel. In reality, though, his opportunity to truly surpass his circumstances once again, to be above Sterling and Cooper, seems to have evaporated — and the amazing stroke of luck of a personal connection with Hilton has only given him yet another boss.

Finally, I will say that Bored to Death has so far been disappointing. It somehow feels like no one’s heart is in it. All the pieces are there, but it has yet to grab me. Perhaps I just need to give it more time.


October 8, 2009 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays


  1. I’m with you contra Foreman. That character is really dragging the show down. Even Thirteen, who seemed unbearable at first, has gotten a bit interesting, but you don’t even notice it because she’s been completely absorbed by Foreman’s petty egomania. They’d have done better to cut him loose a few seasons ago when they had the chance.

    Comment by Reid | October 8, 2009

  2. Really nice analysis of MadMen. Do you think the season is going to end with the JFK assassination? If i caught it right, Roger Sterling’s daughter’s wedding is that day. Seems like a nice blow-up with which to conclude.

    Comment by dbarber | October 8, 2009

  3. I didn’t catch that — now that you say it, it sounds perfect.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 8, 2009

  4. “Bored to Death” lived up to its name. I’m certain I’m not the first person to say it. Basically, he should have given up after “Rushmore.” I am not looking forward to tonight’s episode of “The Office,” but I am looking forward to tonight’s episode of “Supernatural.” I remain confused watching “Fringe.” I’ll continue to support Pacey and his dad, but it better improve soon. While it was nice that Dexter re-learnt the value of Harry’s rules, I would have preferred had the body been in the car. Lundy and Debra remain absolutely intolerable. I hope that when Debra is captured by the “Trinity Killer” that he succeeds in killing her, unlike the “Ice Truck Killer.” “Criminal Minds” was preposterous this week, but “NCIS” was enjoyable. I missed the “NCIS” spin-off, again, unfortunately.

    Comment by Craig | October 8, 2009

  5. I was under the impression the wedding is scheduled for the day after the assassination. Either way, I guess, has potential.

    Comment by Brad Johnson | October 8, 2009

  6. My esteem for Bored to Death has mysteriously increased…

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 8, 2009

  7. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with Chad about “Bored to Death.”

    “Always Sunny” was amazing last week, but I don’t have much to say about it besides that.

    Comment by stras | October 8, 2009

  8. Brad you’re probably right about that- i was going on a “more or less” same day sort of thing.

    Comment by d barber | October 8, 2009

  9. I’m not sure if it is Stras or Adam who is more insulting.

    Comment by Craig | October 8, 2009

  10. Come on, it’s obviously Stras.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 8, 2009

  11. You’re likely right. However, being called a reverse barometer isn’t especially appealing.

    Comment by Craig | October 8, 2009

  12. I agree with your analysis, but I find I like Betty more and more as the show progresses. I love the moment when Don offers her the souvenir Coliseum charm and she practically spits at him. Even when he’s trying to be sweet to her, the very best he can do is to treats her like a child. And yeah, her reaction was to act like a child and basically have a tantrum, but she’s been trapped in her infantilizing domestic prison forever, and she’s just now, in the past couple of episodes, beginning to see just how shitty it is, and how she might make her way out of it. (The show is uncharacteristically a little heavy-handed about this, like when Don takes her Junior League solicitation list and literally writes right over it.)

    Also, Betty in her insane Sophia Loren getup, flirting with the Italian men — really lovely.

    Comment by jms | October 8, 2009

  13. 12: What really humanized Betty for me last week was her adorable little twist “We won! We won! We won!”

    Weiner has said, albeit somewhat elliptically, that he won’t be going into the JFK assassination:

    The one hint he would offer, after I noted that another hypothetical 15-month jump would take the show past the death of John F. Kennedy: “I can say one thing in advance: the Kennedy assassination is very well-trod territory, and I just don’t see myself adding to that.”

    But he can certainly end it there, with poor Miss Sterling’s canceled wedding.

    Comment by oudemia | October 9, 2009

  14. 13: Or, my jv squad theory, that Roger will drop dead on 11/22.

    Comment by oudemia | October 9, 2009

  15. I wonder if Betty will leave Don. It’s becoming apparent that the marriage won’t work, and Don won’t, after all, be the one to leave. Don tried his best to set his life up so that he could abandon it at any time, but now, with his three-year contract, he can’t. Also, in season 1, we (and Betty) were led to believe that Betty’s unhappiness and her nervous disorder stemmed from Don’s infidelities and inattentiveness. But now that Don is trying to be a better husband, she’s realizing that her problems are deeper than that – she hates her whole life. She hates her kids, as Adam points out, and she hates being a suburban Ossining housewife, and she doesn’t even like Don very much. If anyone leaves, and I think someone will, it will probably be Betty.

    Also, I agree Roger will die soon. He’s like half-dead already.

    Comment by jms | October 9, 2009

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