Episodes #4: Mad Men Special, The Wheel (Season 1, Episode 13)

When asked what makes Mad Men such an excellent show, I often struggle to find the words to describe what makes it feel like such quality television. Much of the criticism that gets levelled on the show is hurled at the fact that not much happens per episode, yet the tone and characterisation leaves you thoroughly entertained and absorbed over the course of the hour. In this sense, it is like catching lightning in a bottle, where all the components from the stellar cast, well-drawn characters, atmospheric tone and Matthew Weiner’s overwhelming writing and vision of the show all align to make something truly original and captivating in terms of quality TV. Season one of Mad Men caught the imagination of its audience, and has spurned numerous copycats since its inception in 2007, but it’s clear that none can come close to this smash-hit. In this first in a series of Mad Men Episodes specials, the first example of lightning in a bottle will be explored in the first season finale The Wheel.

Following on from the previous origins/revelations episode that was Nixon vs. Kennedy, the season one finale The Wheel tackles the fallout of Pete Campbell revealing to Sterling Cooper partner Bert Cooper that Don Draper was actually Dick Whitman and had stolen the former’s identity during the particularly horrific circumstances of the Korean War. The brilliant tense, fast-paced reveal scene in the previous episode meant that Don’s conflict with the season’s main antagonist Pete had already been resolved and left room for the more pressing issues of Don’s family life and infidelities in the finale. In particular, it seems that the explosive finale sees Don’s wife Betty come to the realisation that Don has been regularly unfaithful to her, and denotes a significant change in their relationship. In the first evolution of the union, Betty begins to become more passive-aggressive to her husband, utilising the psychiatrist arc that propped up her season on screen as a means of lashing out at Don. Recognising that Don had frequently been phoning the psychiatrist as a means of gaining introspection into his wife’s psyche throughout the season, Betty goes on the offensive and vocalises her concerns of Don’s infidelity. This scene leaves their rocky relationship balanced precariously on the brink for next season, but isn’t even the pinnacle of the cliff-hanger left in The Wheel which I’ll detail later on.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s rise up the ladder of Sterling Cooper is jeopardised as the payoff to the rumour-spinning arc of her weight gain arrives as immediately after being led to her brand new office, she falls victim to stomach pains and ultimately giving birth to her illegitimate child with Pete as the father. This is an example of the kind of storytelling that Mad Men does so well, as the character had noticeably gained weight over previous episodes, but not so much so that her colleagues’ teasing of her behind her back really give away the twist that she is bearing Pete’s child. I was shocked when watching this reveal for the first time, and the scene is exemplary of the type of subtle foreshadowing that bestows such an esteemed halo around the show.

Moreover, the climax scene of the entire season is magnificently conceived and executed and is perhaps a representation of what truly propels this series into the best-ever genre of television programmes. Charged with setting up an ad campaign for a Kodak product with the prototype name ‘the wheel’, Don leads a touching and insightful pitch to his clients utilising the tagline ‘The Carousel’ and a slideshow of Don and his family and reminiscing over better times. The concept is marketed effectively to the clients and is poignantly astute into Don as a character and as a man. The excellent pitch scene is followed by a touching imagined scene where Don arrives home to meet his family and retreat to Betty’s parents’ for Thanksgiving, yet the reality is inherently bleak and indicative of the depressive fog that clouds over the show. Don arrives back not to the carousel of happy family home but instead to a cavernously empty house, the season ending on that very sombre tone.

What makes Mad Men such a success relies upon the sense of atmosphere captured within the season one finale as an emblem of the entire season. Moreover what makes the characterisation of Don so fascinating and brilliant is that despite his sometimes reprehensible and questionable actions we know that at his core, he is still that little boy looking to escape the clutches of his father, or the young man running away from the horrors of the Korean War and most importantly is desperate to be the ideal family man of Americana that he spends all day pitching to clients. In The Wheel, the tragedy of Don’s character lies in his vulnerability and his self-sabotage that leaves him alone in his house for Thanksgiving. While Mad Men often gets criticised for having little action and relying on the atmospheric tone of the piece, The Wheel is an absolute prime example of the quality of the series, and how sometimes what is left unsaid is far more important than what is.

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~ by jrhett on March 17, 2012.

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