Sunday, August 29, 2010

MAD MEN 4.6--"Waldorf Stories"

"Are you going to use the KKK to sell cough drops?"

So last week was a bit of a return to form, wherein Don Draper managed to crush a wanna be rival by way of a very cunning Xanatos Gambit (which actually depended on a "he knows that I know that he knows" bit, what a novelty) and we even got a racist rant from Roger in the bargian, for those of you who think that Mad Men is just about smoking, drinking, and the genteel racism and sexim of a simpler, more innocent time.

This week, following one of the most terrible job interviews I can ever imagine happening anywhere thanks to nepotism on Roger's part we join Don feeling ennui and a little sadness as awards season looms (at the Waldorf) and Peggy is breaking in her new art director, and both with less than spectacular results.

This leads us to a meaningful flashback or two wherein Don Draper and Roger Sterling meet for the first time as Don tries to sell Roger a fur coat (SPOILER: it's not for him, but longtime viewers can probably guess) and impresses Roger with his skills at writing biblically-themed ad copy for Play Doh. This is notable, because Roger and Don's friendship stems from him lifting Don up out of obscurity, and there's a neat parallel here as Don is so annoyingly eager to please as the guy he shot down at the opening of this episode, and funnily enough certain patterns from then repeat themselves now.

It's also a neat parallel between the two of them, as Don is. . .well, where Don's been this whole season, and lately we're privy to Roger's feelings of same. This time, we get a peek into the book he's working on, which seems to be bogging down into reminiscence of his childhood. Given Roger's two heart attacks, one could hardly begrudge him an obsession with his own past in the face on an uncertain and maybe shorter than expected future, but the rather halting and uncertain (and un-Roger, basically) way he's going through it, he seems to be in a dark uncertain place.

The award ceremony is a chamber of horrors, as these things usually are. Pete runs into arch-nemesis Ken Cosgrove (who puts a bug up his ass about something with a casual remark) Don runs into Ted Chaugh, and gets to witness second season arch nemesis (also Peggy's old FWB and one of the most hated characters in the history of Mad Men) Duck Phillips make a drunken fool out of himself in front of the MC who apparently is on loan from Days of Our Lives. Just at their moment of triumph, they have to rush back and present to Life cereal, which would be fine except for the fact that everyone is drunk as a lord on whiskey and triumph and what results is, like the job interview, positively ghastly and is played out as a twisted parody of a Mad Men presentation scene, and Don totally blows it (the answer, Mr. Draper, is "Mikey Likes It" for $1000, but that may have come a little later in Life cereal's lifespan) and unfortunately ends up plagiarizing an ad tagline from Roger's incompetent relative (which he'd already dismissed as awful) from the job interview before and the whole thing just makes you cringe for everyone involved, as you will very often during this episode.

Which dovetails neatly to the B and C plot. Peggy is still simmering over Don taking credit for the Glo-Coat ad (remember--Peggy does not like it when people assume Don is actually doing her work or deserves credit. It is her Berserk Button) and Pete learns that Ken Cosgrove is being headhunted for a job at SCDP (Ken Cosgrove is Pete's Berserk Button) and this plays havoc with Pete's plans.

Meanwhile, as Peggy misses her immediate chance to nail Don to the wall for what he did (and the pattern it shows), and Don embarrasses himself once again by striking out with Dr. Faye, the focus group gal. In fact, this whole episode really shows Don at a lower ebb than normal, and when you take the new ad director into account, somehow manages to be a hellish swine on a show full of them, and I remind you that Don once poked his finger's into a woman's vagina, went back to dinner, and didn't wash his hands in between those two events.

But he does get to see Peggy starkers, because apparently the most conducive atmosphere to work in one in which we have as much nudity as basic cable will allow and a running commentary on one man's erection (y'know, you never think you'll actually type that, and yet . . .). I go back to work tomorrow morning, and I was looking for something to liven up the Monday.

Oh, and Don gets lucky at the awards show after-party, which by the time we get there is loathsome and drunk and the kind of thing that just makes you want to take a shower after watching because everyone's so goddamned repellent. Don gets a new spin on our national anthem and wakes up to Betty reaming him out because he forgot what day it is (he was supposed to pick up the kids) because he's just that drunk. In bed with a different woman, who knows his real name and he doesn't remember hers until he sees the nametag. It's a bit like the last third of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only nowhere near as uplifting.

AND Peggy drops by to deliver the long awaited bollocking, which Don has more than earned by this point. It would be hopeful to think that this is Don's moment where he hits rock bottom and picks himself back up, but this is episode 6 of a 13 episode season so . . .my hopes are not high.

And we were so hopeful last week. Not hard to see why some wags are actively musing on who will die--this show's never been cheery but this year it's been as black and depressing as a black and depressing thing.

Don covers his ass, but he's so beaten down by this point he has to capitulate to hiring Roger's idiot kin, to the utter dismay of everyone. Pete tries to break Cosgrove's balls and get him in as his subordinate, as he doesn't want Cosgrove on equal footing with him, as with Roger weakening, his power in the agency is in ascendancy. Also, he's been wanting to pound him into the dirt for ages.

Oh, and, in the punchline to the whole business, the reason Don got a foot in the door in the first place? Roger got blackout drunk, hired him, and didn't remember the next day. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

On the whole, this episode may feel a bit like the stuff we've already seen before, only with the awful intensity of it dialed up to about 20,000, and one could be forgiven for wondering "OK, when are some shoes actually going to drop here or is every episode going to be a race to the bottom?" By now, we have some picture of the general theme of this season--when in the midst of fearful change and upheaval so readily apparent that the proverbial sands are shifting underfoot. The question is . . .now that we know, how do we go forward?

NEXT TIME: Well, once again, I elect not to play this game trying to read the tea leaves on AMC's misleading previews, so here's my best guess. In the wake of a biological attack unleashed on the Earth that creates a zone of control wherein people are made slaves under the control of a man named Overlord. In response, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hops on one-wheeled bikes and . . .oh, wait, that's actually Spiral Zone I'm describing. Never mind. My best guess is that something will happen, and then something else will happen. Luggage may or may not be involved also, judging by the title. Next Episode--"The Suitcase." Shoot down the approaching enemy, Gundam!


There was no expectation I'd actually like this.

Greg Rucka usually leaves me cold, I'd always appreciated J.H. Williams III art, but never really seen anything I thought was definitive work, and Batwoman . . .well.

Batwoman was rolled out in such a cringeworthy self-congratulatory way around the time of Infinite Crisis that I and a lot of people weren't expect that much from the character. Given the nature of the press release announcing her (and the alleged "controversy" ginned up to get DC on CNN on a slow news day) referring to her as a "lipstick lesbian,"; announcing Devin Grayson was going to write her (as much of a seal of doom as having Judd Winick write it--this, thankfully, never materialised); DC's inability to do anything interesting with their universe that didn't involve ridiculous levels of angst, blood, and gore; and the whole tone of how they announced a character they weren't 100% sure what to do with (and actually proceeded to do very little with for the next few years, if memory serves) well . . .none of this screamed "success."

Well, so much for assumptions. Batwoman: Elegy is not only good damn comics, it's my favourite comic of the year so far. Yes, I know it's a collection. In fact, I would compare it to the Manhunter strip from the early 70's (Fun fact: Manhunter is one of my favourite comics ever, so this is about as high praise as I can give it) in terms of having its own style and rhythm completely separate from anything else going on in DC's universe. It's been ages where a mainstream superhero book was allowed to be this individualistic (and as everything gets slaved to crossovers and homogeneity in tone, isn't that something to be celebrated on its own) in terms of story, art, and character, and it's worth a closer look at all three of these elements, as they're crucial to the success of the whole.

Rucka keeps things lean and keeps the story moving fast as a result. The hook of Batwoman being gay isn't that big a deal (which is how it should be treated--in handling characters of any minority stripe, I feel like to make it not a Big Deal is to treat it as a given. Otherwise you end up with a lot of stories wherein everything is about The Character being gay/a minority/whatever and that way leads that feel like one is ticking off boxes and/or didactic and we should all aspire to be better than that) even in the scene wherein she's drummed out of west point because of being gay. The story point turns on the question of her integrity more than her sexuality: this is a person who's honesty and ethics are so iron-clad when given a chance that leads to fulfilling her ambition, she turns it down because the cost of compromise is too high.

One of the big challenges you have with introducing a new character into the Batman family is that they all tend to be subsumed into Batman's orbit. Some of that's inevitable, but some of it's just lazy and a way to covertly con you into buying a bunch more Batman books that don't have much (if any) Batman in them and nothing else to recommend them.

Batwoman doesn't do that. Her Gotham is recognisably the same city, but has it own mise en scene separate from what we've grown accustomed to seeing from Batman comics. Superficially there is a similar dynamic between Batwoman and her father and Batman and Alfred, but how it plays out is far different--somewhat more father and child/commanding officer and subordinate, but with unmistakable affection on the part of both characters.

Not that that bond doesn't get a little strained over the course of the book. The Religion of Crime (one of the really cool ideas from 52, I thought) is back in Gotham, and Batwoman is on the case, having all the incentive she needs after they cut her heart out, There's a new woman in charge of their religion and she may or may not have ties to Batwoman. In between that, we learn how Kate Kane was inspired to become Batwoman and her relationship with her father and Abbot, a now-heretical member of the Religion who functions as an occasional ally to Batwoman.

Not the deepest plot ever minuted, but really it doesn't have to be to succeed--it just needs to be played out elegantly enough and not larded down with didactic or teeth-gnashingly obvious dialogue. Rucka comes close to with the scene of Kate and her girlfriend in bed having a rather on-the-nose argument about homosexuality, but I think he just about gets away with it because the scene is more about Kate's ennui and lack of an outlet for her energies and the fact that her and Montoya are obviously going in different directions and that's when your most painful arguments start happening, innit?

What's gotten as much attention, justifiably, is J.H. Williams III's art. As far away from the 9 panel grid as one is perhaps able to get before you transcend paper, his page formats are some mix of expressionism and art deco that in places seem like Matt Wagner's Hunter Rose stories which are in the process of exploding as you look at them. Everything is angular--panel breaks follow the impacts of action in one moment, the elegant musical notes tinkling through a social occasion in another. Moments can be rendered with fine detail in one panel, soft, almost David Mack-esque abstraction the next.

This should be a recipe for disaster, as it initially make look unreadable or sacrificing the flow of story for the sake of over-designing the pages, but after the initial shock, it reads very smoothly. I'm especially struck by the fact that Williams doesn't go the usual route of making his pages "cinematic"--there is no way you could do any of this in any medium other than comics. I also really like the way Batwoman and Kate are given entirely separate body language, even down to their line widths--Batwoman is rendered more aggressively and forcefully, Kate is light and delicate, but can occasionally, with a glance, come across as Batwoman as well.

I should also give props to how he tweaked the costume as well. Obviously, the Batwoman suit probably isn't entirely realistic, but he adds in enough plausible and practical touches that it feels like it would work in a fictional universe where y'know, Wonder Woman tarts around in a bomber jacket.

Special notice needs to be given (and if I have one complaint, it's that he didn't get a cover credit) to Dave Stewart's colouring, which is some of the best I've seen in comics. Batwoman and Kate are given a signature shade of red (like Hellboy, which Stewart also coloured) that immediately identifies them on the page and draws your eye towards them. Batwoman is rendered in black-white-grey, the civilian scenes have a warmer tint, but even then Kate is a bit paler than the rest. Little touches like that add a tremendous amount to the comic and in a world where most colourists are determined to render everything in muddy shades of brown, that someone put this much thought into the business of comic colouring that they should get a medal, at the very least.

In short, despite the fact that this character was a retread of a character from the 50's who dressed like a banana and fought crime with hairspray, despite the fact that the character was embarrassingly mishandled, despite all this, this is a fantastic book, and well worth your time.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

MAD MEN 4.5--"The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

"Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?"

Last week, in what was a long-awaited moment for certain Mad Men fans, someone genuinely hurt by his behavior called Don Draper on his bullshit and said he was a bad person. Then, to add an exclamation point to things, she threw something at him. Don, already wounded by ever-accumulating amounts of existential angst that has his heart in such a stranglehold that he can't even articulate it, continued his slow-burn meltdown.

Don gets a break on the "constant personal disaster" front this week. Don't get me wrong--he's still remote, confused, and dickish. It's just that everyone else was more screwed up this week.

This week, things get awkward and crazy as holy hell. As we have frequently in this season so far, changes are coming fast and furious and our nominal protagonists aren't quite fast enough on the uptake. We've already had the advent of the focus-group marketing, a visit to the burgeoning world of Pop Art, and now Honda, on the eve of rolling out their automobile line in the US, is courted as client.

International relations in a world growing more global is something that's been primarily off-screen, but has been mentioned from time to time in the series, but this is the first time a wholly "other" culture has been courted. The Japanese roll in, and a lot is made of having to court them properly. Matters of protocol are discussed, the book from which the episode's title is taken is consulted, and rehearsed, plans are made and remade . . .

. . .and the Roger Sterling comes along and destroys any potential hope of landing the client with a brutally racist rant right in front of them. When you consider that Roger did a blackface number last season, let me say here that . . .yeah, this was probably more racist than that, as the blackface number did not include threatened nuclear attack. Roger, being a veteran of WWII has no time for this kind of change and no liking for them at all for the Japanese and can't see the point of courting them, especially as eve. There is an implication there's more than that at work (fear of irrelevancy was one of the things that spurred Roger to join Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the first place) but also, Pete says, as Lucky Strike is so much of SCDP's business, to court clients on equal footing (as Honda soon will be) it threatens Roger's position.

Pete may or may not be right about that. The problem he has is that even when he's right, he's such an asshole about it, you just want to punch him in the face. As Roger tries to do.

More on that later, as we have some other things to deal with. Don's eldest daughter Sally is not taking the divorce well at all, and it's leading her to act out more and more. She did a little of that last season, but now it escalates to cutting her own hair--badly--and . . .doing something she shouldn't during The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (apparently she has a thing for David McCallum. Who knew?) Betty's response to this is to beat the holy hell out of her and threaten to chop off her fingers (no, really--she did) and it's only after being talked down by both Don and Henry, she eventually decides to take her to see a psychiatrist (this despite her own recalcitrance given her own experience with psychiatrists) who then suggests Betty see someone as well. That both of them need to see shrinks is something that's been abundantly clear TO ANYONE CAPABLE OF EVEN THE MOST RUDIMENTARY REASONING for some time now, and in Sally's case, she needs all the help she can get, considering that the only person capable for screwing up her life more is Unicron.

Meanwhile, the Honda thing is not going well, and Don is being taunted a person at a competitive agency (CGC) who's declared himself Don's competition, by virtue of the fact they've been picking up accounts SCDP has dropped or had to resign. It seems a clinch after Roger's Pearl Harbouring of the Honda meeting that he will ad yet another notch to CGC gun, when Don has a brilliant idea and enacts a very subtle and amusing Xanatos Gambit that tricks the competition into bankrupting themselves, breaking the rules, and then hanging his competition on the letter of their own rules. Don's master plan and the handling of the Honda meeting is a gallant act of Magnificent Bastardness that recalls the Don who pulled out improbable wins in Seasons 2 and 3, and while it seems a small victory for now (EDIT: The didn't win the account, but they did beat the guy, and that still works out to a win. I am a flawed creature, and things get by me.) it's a much-needed return to form for a guy we've seen slowly collapsing like a flan in a cupboard for the past 5 weeks.

Also, Peggy whizzing around in circles in an empty set on a Honda scooter was just hilarious.

So, we had a win this week, and in between the utterly squicky awkwardness with Sally this week, we got a few funny lines, usually borne from the awkward situations the SCDP gang found them in (and also Don't new secretary, who is just hilariously incompetent and exasperated at all of them) and we really did need that as we'd spent so much time this season dipping into the characters' darkness and confusion, it was good to see them pull one out, even if it played up just how volatile things are . . .

. . .which may or may not be the focus NEXT TIME: Either it's all about Pete Campbell jockeying for more and more power and influence and pissing everyone off in the process, which is what he's done from frame one of this show, as I mentioned above. As I refuse to play the game of reading the tea leaves from AMC's woefully misleading previews, so I make up my own utterly dadaist thing and cap it off with a "next episode" tagline taken from something else, usually anime or other TV shows. Join us next week as Don learns he's the last son of Krypton, Betty develops a thing for white leather corsets and telepathy, Roger finds out his son is tarting around in powered armour, and Peggy is actually the daughter of the President of the United States Also, judging by the title, Muppets may or may not be involved. Join us next week for "Waldorf Stories." What did you see in the fire?

Friday, August 20, 2010


Marvel's hardcovers are a wonderful thing to behold, and not just the Masterworks. Inevitably stuffed with all sorts of cool goodies and extras (the Agents of Atlas miniseries collection is a great example of this) that can make even an average collection into something special, especially when they collect stuff that hasn't been seen for awhile.

. . .and then . . .Of all the comics Marvel has published in its 75+ year history, Contest of Champions (once aptly satirized as Breakfast of Champions) is certainly one of them. If it's remembered at all, it's only because it was the first mini-series. I can't say I exactly like it, and no amount of snark I can unleash will equal Gone & Forgotten's epic takedown of it from way far ago (which you should totally go and read. I'll wait. They even have pictures! I don't, because I can't be arsed.) but it's . . .well, let's call it a curiosity, chiefly because the story behind how the damn thing finally escaped from editorial is way more interesting than anything that ever happens in the damn book--well, except for the backmatter, which I'll address in a bit.

Contest began its life as a Marvel Treasury Edition--one of those beloved big-ass tabloid-size books that was a cornerstone of the 70s, the trades of their day--that was meant to coincide with the 1980 Olympics. Only that didn't quite work out, and this was learned only after they'd spent 40 pages on it. So into the bin it went, with the hope that maybe they could use it in 1984 (not that that would have worked out all that well either, really.)

Trouble is, no one told the inker the project was off, and Pablo Marcos merrily went along inking all the pages he had, and when he asked for more, it occurred to everyone that "hey, let's do something with this!" and so they go about trying to thrash it into an agreeable 3-issue shape and make it the sensational talk of the comics world of 1982.

It didn't really work all that well, as what you ended up with was a three issue book with three writers trying very hard to make all of this make any goddamn sense, and what's worse, one of those writers was Bill F'ing Mantlo.

There are people who say that Bill Mantlo is an under-appreciated genius who diligently did great work in unexpected books like Micronauts and ROM and all that, but (and I am trying very hard not to say "Chris Sims" here while I paraphrase Chuck D) while he may be a hero to some, he never meant shit to me. While we were three years away from his evisceration of Alpha Flight, my venomous contempt for which I have expounded on at length elsewhere, within contest he offers us the following hyperbolic quotables:

"AARGH! Numbing cold, clutching at my very soul!"

"Like the spiny pear that is the symbol of the Israeli people from which I drive my name I am harsh to my enemies, yet sweet to my friends"

"Defensor's south-of-the-border machismo really got my blood boiling! I could mop up the floor with male chauvinist pigs like him!"

I could do this all night. For those of you who think Claremont and Wolfman were the twin titans of purple prose in the 80's I give you . . .Mantlo.

Anyways, on to what there is of a plot in this damn thing. Everyone on earth gets frozen in place and then every superhero on earth gets transported for a flying Astrodome in space, only for half of them to sit around doing sweet F.A. while the Grandmaster and the Unknown (who is--SPOILER--actually Death, who despite being a silent abstract representation of the state of un-being will not shut the hell up through the course of this book) drone on and on about how they want Earth's heroes to play a game because the Grandmaster's fellow Elder of the Universe, the Collector, got killed by Korvac and sometimes I hate comics and don't want to live on this planet anymore.

The Elders of the Universe are part of a multi-decade project on behalf of certain of Marvel's writers to make us give a shit about them as characters, and frankly, nearly 50 years in, I'm damn tired of it. I have no use for them and have never taken them seriously as genuine threats, and the only time I ever enjoyed seeing them was in Thanos Quest when Thanos basically played them all like the bitches they are and slammed the lid with the comment that they are "basically and ineffective and stupid lot." Preach it, brother.

Anyways, Death and the Grandmaster choose up teams, and in one of the holdovers from the Olympic games, we have a smattering of international superheroes who are, let's face it, The Stereotype Brigade. ROLL CALL!

TALISMAN--Talisman wears a loincloth, spins a bullroarer and talks about the "dreamtime," which seems to mean whatever the plot needs it to mean. He looks and acts like he does because no one really gave a shit to look up Australia in a book or, I suspect, even locate it on a map. Not to be confused with Nathan Jones, the Colossus of Boggo Road, who is not to be confused with Peter Garrett from the band Midnight Oil.

VANGUARD--I have read more comics about Vanguard than any one human being should read. I didn't really mean to, but reading Marvel books in the 80's, shit happens. I have never had a satisfactory answer about what his powers are--it has something to do with the hammer and sickle he carries around (because he's SOVIET) but I really can't be bothered to give a shit, so in the interests of ending this paragraph, I'm going to say his power is to be punched in the face by the Thing.

SHAMROCK--Shamrock shoots green clovers, pink hearts, blue diamonds, yellow moon, red balloons and purple horseshoes out of her ass. No, actually, she's just very lucky, and yet she dresses like a total goober and talks in the same cod-Irish that Banshee always talked in. Shamrock is very annoying, and I really have nothing else to say about her. Somewhere Garth Ennis is planning a MAX limited series wherein Shamrock beheads Captain Britain and sodomizes his corpse with a strap-on dildo.

DEFENSOR--Defensor is the combined form of the Protectobots--Hot Spot, Groove, Streetwise, First Aid, and Streetwise--oh wait, he's some douchebag dressed as a conquistador with a magic shield and a pencil thin mustache John Waters would kill his mother for. He says "Madre di dios!" a lot in case we forget he is from South America. Funnily enough, Defensor isn't a perfect Argentinian stereotype because he doesn't have bolas. Go stand in the corner until you're fully politically incorrect, Mantlo.

ARABIAN KNIGHT--About as Arabic as Yao Ming in a Bozo costume, Arabian Knight is allegedly a Bedouin who, while raiding a tomb one day, decided to dress like Sinbad and fly around on a magical carpet, like you do. He actually wins one for his team, after a intensely brainless subplot where he and Sabra don't get along (CAN YOU FEEL THE SYMBOLISM YET?!?) except he saves her life with his magic carpet and Sabra's all like "kiss my ass, I'd rather die" and he's like "whatevs, yo" and he later got killed by someone named Humus Sapien. For some reason, that last bit makes me very happy and also ties in with the ham fisted symbolism at work here (no it doesn't)

SABRA--Named after a pear, Sabra is very high in vitamin C and is green, and is very good when served with cheese. No, wait--Sabra is Israel's national superhero and actually beat up the Hulk back when they didn't job him to everyone. I think she ended up an X-Men in the 1990s, because Scott Lobdell has a weird hardon for the Stereotype Brigade, which I'll address later.

LE PEREGRINE--Is French, which means he comes off as a right douchebag, thus he could be said to possess all the powers of France. Also, "Le Peregrine" isn't a French word at all, as Wikipedia helpfully, pedantically, illustrates. Le Peregrine has all the powers of Batroc the Leaper, and can fly. He also says little French words in case we forget his nationality because how else would you do it? "DO YOU SINK ZIS PURPLE STANDS POUR LES ETATS-UNIS?!?!"

BLITZKRIEG--Because naturally postwar Germany would name its one superhero after Hitler's "lightning war" strategy from WWII. But then, there was a pro wrestler called The Final Solution, so really, tastelessness knows no history. Blitz has ill-defined electric powers and spent his few remain appearances trying to backpedal this name thing before he was killed. He speaks about as much German as Nightcrawler ever did. Storm turns into a big face in the sky and knocks him out (no, really!)

COLLECTIVE MAN--Oh, this one hurts my soul. The Collective Man is five guys who merge into one guy who has all the powers of five guys smooshed together plus the powers of every human being in China, which sounds really impressive (and were this made in 2010, would mean they held an enormous amount of US debt and bootleg DVDs, which surely would allow him to kick the Hulk's ass up and down the woodpile or something) but is rather ill defined because the whole joke is HA HA THERE ARE ALOT OF CHINESE PEOPLE.

The Collective Man doesn't have a Fu Manchu mustache. He has that going for him.

As you might imagine, this leads to teeth-bleedingly leaden moments like Shamrock and Captain Britain not getting along because he has a big gold stick and she's dressed like a leprechaun. Because obviously a garish comic book is the ideal place to work out things like The Troubles. And let us not even speak of the ongoing Sabra/Arabian Knight feud, which posits that the Arab/Israeli conflict can be seen in microcosm as a guy on a magic carpet fighting a woman with all the powers of a flying porcupine.

I swear, if this comic were any more soaked in stereotypes everyone would be in blackface fighting in a watermelon patch.

OK, so our heroes fight for four pieces of a golden globe, which will then be given to Pia Zadora--no, I'm sorry, it's the tachyons, they're muddling things up. Whoever gets the most bits of globe wins the contest only who gives a shit because the heroes involved are fighting as proxies of two people with inscrutable motives, the new heroes are such ciphers we really don't know enough to care about and everything moves along at such breakneck speed that it's over abruptly before we really get a sense of what's going on. And the heroes do nothing, exert no agency over their situation, and generally are superfluous to the whole thing.

For real, the book just stops on a typo (literally--we're told that the Grandmaster's team wins, even though Death's team is the one that's shown to win) the Collector comes back to life, and everyone just kind of goes home and goes "Man, what the hell was all that about?" (you and me both, gang) and thanks to everyone except the people making it figuring out the error, no one thought to catch this little detail before it went to press.

Naturally, this was spun to set up a sequel. Luckily, a sequel to Contest of Champions was as much in demand as AIDS 2: Now with FIRE, and it was another 5 years before a sequel played out (I'm excluding Contest of Champions 2, which has nothing to do with this--it's about Chris Claremont's issues with women), which brings us to the second half of the book.

Back in the mid-80s, there were two Avengers book, unlike the 2,918 (sorry--3,299) we have now. The main Avengers book struggled on and occasionally had great stories like the Under Siege story with the Masters of Evil and Steven Seagal. The West Coast Avengers was the book where Steve Englehart eventually lost his damn mind. In the first two Annuals, the East Coast teams and West Coast teams met up in the center of the country and played baseball, or more accurately, just happened to be doing that while they waited for something to happen.

This year, the Silver Surfer crashes their game and the Avengers die. The Collector shows up plot immediately gets a bit more convoluted as everyone struggles to remember the first Contest and then struggles even mightier to give a damn about it. The only way to save the Avengers is to play this game, which means the West Coasters have to swallow poison, die (people die in this story a minimum of 9 times each) and fight the East Coasters (and if there's time, the Great Space Coaster) in an effort to . . .well, it changes about 2 or three times.

First--the East Coasters vs. the West Coasters in an overwritten battle of the ages. Hank Pym endlessly wittering on about how he's redeemed himself as he's trapped the Wasp in a gas-filled bubble (full of rohypnol, one imagines) is all the argument I need to put forth that we as a society need to put Hank Pym on a bus and leave him there, never speaking his name again.

Then we switch to the Avengers annual, and things get simultaneously more awesome and more batshit crazy, as the Grandmaster shows up and makes the Avengers fight most of the notable entries from the first three issues of the Marvel Handbook's Book of the Dead (one of which is Bucky, and I can't tell you how funny that is in retrospect) Yes, if ever you wondered what would happen if Tigra fought Death Adder or Doctor Druid stood alone against Dracula, or even dared to imagine the result of a winner takes all throwdown between Moon Knight and the Green Goblin, well, this issue is for you, and until now, I never knew you existed.

Such a strange concept must have attracted a certain group of artists, because this book has quite a pedigree. John Romita and Bill Sienkiewicz do a very moody fight in Hell wherein Nighthawk kills Hank Pym with a stalagmite through the chest, Marshall Rogers draws the Silver Surfer/Korvac battle, and Kevin Nowlan gets to draw Dracula and is pretty damn good at it. For all that even at this date Annuals are pretty throwaway stories (even those that aren't sequels to 5 year old terrible stories) this is quite an artistic pedigree and makes you wish it was in the service to something better.

For all I sneer at it though, it's a better followup than the original, because it actually hinges on the heroes doing something instead of listening to the inscrutable godlike beings monologue incessantly. The final twist of the story hinges on Hawkeye being a carny and playing the Grandmaster for a rube in a rigged game of chance, which is funny on all sorts of levels and actually gives us an ending that works (and I'm not just saying this because whenever the Elders are played for saps is awesome. But you and I both know it is) and while it's not quite my ideal ending (Iron Man kicks everyone in the junk and the universe explodes 12 times while a morbidly obese Batman eats waffles and pontificates about whether Ethel Merman was a tranny) this ends--finally--the Contest of Champions, and thank God.

Now, let me follow up on some points of interest. In the back of every issue of Contest of Champions was a small agate listing of the histories of major Marvel heroes and villains (yep, despite being wholly impenetrable and illogical, this book was thought to be an ideal gateway drug for future Marvel Zombies) and while trying to read type that small probably led to comic fans needing glasses as much as all the masturbation did, it did inspire the creation of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which is one of my favourite 80's bits of universe-building. When the time comes that I lose my collection to apathy or fire, I will never part with the Handbooks (or their DC counterparts) They're awesome, is what I'm saying.

As to the Stereotype Brigade, well, they still show up from time to time. Shamrock showed up in Marvel Comics Presents, because all you needed to do to be in that book was to fill pages in a way that wasn't just obscenities written in crayon on every page. Scott Lobdell then used her in every possible way he could in every book he wrote prior to being the prime mover for the X-Books in the 90's, and yet, oddly enough, Shamrock didn't join. She may have appeared after that, but I tend to worry about that about as much as I do the canonicity of the pimp who complimented Superman on his outfit in the first movie, which is to say, I don't. Ever.

Sabra showed up, lost the afro and the need to dress as a porcupine, and occasionally shows up to be a hardass to justify utterly foolish things. I am not mentioning these things because it is late and I'm too tired to look them up. I think Le Peregrine was an Avenger at one time, too. I . . .guess? Does anyone really care?

I have no great summation for this write-up because it's fucking Contest of Champions and I'm tired, so I will, as a substitute, frame it as an essay question, like we had in school:

"In Contest of Champions, we learn the Marvel Universe is populated by various unfortunate ethnic and national stereotypes who are standing in for the real superheroes until someone with a World Almanac, a set of encyclopedias, and some sanity can put some actual effort into the task of creating international heroes. Assuming that you were a complete berk and Contest of Champions was your only guide to how to function in the world, how long would it take you to get your ass well and truly kicked? Explain your answer."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MAD MEN 4.4--"The Rejected"

"I don't know how you stand it. One minute he turns on the charm one minute and then he yanks it away . . .He's a drunk and they get away with murder because they forget everything."

Last week, in one the most depressing/hilarious episodes ever, our hero (or nominal protagonist, at least) suffered the knowledge that he was going to lose one of the few people who understood him and cared about him, and bounced back by helping his partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce get over his impending divorce by going on an epic bender, wherein we learned the cure for divorce is to get massively drunk, go watch Gamera movies, use a steak as a belt buckle, and put a button on the evening by hiring a prostitute.

Things go even more askew this week--for one thing, Don gets a letter from Anna, which only re-opens the bleeding angst from last week.

But more than that, Pete Campbell is taking a shellacking. His father in law's Clearasil account (which was a major point of contention for him in the second season and quite a surprise when he regained it at the end of series 3) which, from what he indicates today came at a heavy cost has to be rejected as it's in conflict with another client and Pete's left to break the news, a job for which Pete is about as equipped to break it to father-in-law as Hitler is to host a bat mitzvah.

That's the least of the shocks to come to him, as in the process of trying to break it to the father-in-law, he learns that his wife is (finally--their inability to conceive was part of the whole folderol over Clearasil last time and a hilarious scene with a paddleball) pregnant, which makes him elated (if ambivalent) and gives him an out to not tell his father-in-law. Peter, being a spineless, wormy jellyfish who often exerts his humanity in spite of his nature rather than because of it, welcomes the distraction and eager to fob off the job of telling him to his wife.

Pete is a douchebag, you see, and one who since we've known him usually defines himself in competition with others, whether it be Don, Ken Cosgrove (who returns finally), his family, his in-laws, really anyone. The feud with Cosgrove is still going on, of course, and the infamous "lawnmower incident" from last year is brought up once again, and while they make an effort to patch things over in light of Pete becoming a father and Cosgrove finally getting married. How sincere this is is left to the viewer to judge, but . . .

. . .he makes it worse later on, by explaining the conflict between Clearasil in perhaps the most obnoxious way possible, essentially blackmailing him into delivering the entire Vick's chemical account, which is pretty much the Pete Campbell we're used to.

While all this is going on, we sit in on a focus group for Pond's Cold Cream (the people who started Pete's whole mess in the first place) From the week before last, we know that the spectre of focus groups has just been initiated at SCDP, and this is the first time we really see it in action, or rather we watch Don, Peggy, and Freddy watch them in action, which ends with most of the focus group bawling (the chief crier being Don's secretary Allison what he crossed the line with two weeks ago) and Peggy ends up finding out that she and Don have done the nasty, and she assumes that Peggy must have as well.

Don getting the credit for Peggy's work is her Berserk Button (she very nearly didn't make the move to SCDP because she was sick of Don taking her for granted because she was being treated like this) so Allison's insistence that she must also have slept with Don sets her off and she makes everything worse despite her altruistic intentions. Ever the prisoner of lies, as everyone is on this show, Peggy says that she's "fine."

Don tries as best he can to patch things up, but the secretary hits him right between the eyes with the aftereffects of what happened. They both agree it was a mistake and the secretary wants to quit and work for Cosmopolitan (or so I am led to believe) and wants Don to write her a letter of recommendation, a job which he fobs back off on her and she throws something at him and says he's a shitty person (and he is--for all his alienation and inability to connect with people, Don does, at times, do the Wrong Thing and richly deserves to be called on his bullshit) and stalks off. Don reacts as he usually does, by being alone and looking sullen.

One might argue that being alone and sullen and trying to blunt it with drink it what caused this in the first place. Anna told him that the thing that most makes him unhappy is the belief that he's alone. He does his best to make it up to Allison and struggles over a letter explaining everything, but can't finish it because what's wrong is something he can't or is unwilling to articulate.

On the plus side, Allison gets replaced by a secretary that pretty much ensures that the same thing that happened to Allison won't be repeated.

Meanwhile, one rejected photo from life magazine gets Peggy into a party with some honest to God New York Hippies (one of which I assume is supposed to be Kenneth Anger or an amazing simulation) and fires up a spliff. Things don't go quite as carefree as the last time, as the post-Warhol hippies, she gets insulted for being a sellout and the place gets raided. On the plus side, considering she very nearly gets lucky in a closet hiding out from the pigs. I had never really considered the erotic potential involved in police raids, but Mad Men educates as it entertains.

Peggy, full of the exciting possibilities that her night out offered, then hears the news of Pete's impending fatherhood and delivers some very halting congratulations. This is somewhat painful, given their mutual history and the fact that the idea of Pete Campbell spawning is enough to terrify anyone.

Meanwhile, Don upbraids the focus group person, partly because he sees no value in what they do, but also, I think, because this kind of "people doing something because of what they've always done" is the antithesis of what he does. It's analysis, and he's creative, and given where we are now in the world of advertising, one gets the distinct impression he can smell his own extinction, a fact which I'm sure is only going to fuel his dislocation and implosion.

NEXT TIME: Apparently there will be a lot of shouting. Again, I refuse to speculate as to what these out of context quotes really mean. So, I'm going to just say: Some things will happen. Apparently Betty will be back for the first time in a couple weeks. Perhaps someone will be set on fire, and Don Draper will crack open a can of whupass on a ninja camp with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other--your guess is as good as mine. There may even be falling cherry blossoms--those are always badass in a classy way. Next episode--"The Chrysanthemum and the Sword." NOT EVEN JUSTICE, I WANT TO GET TRUTH.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Kazkeage's Hipocrisy Korner

In which, in the first of what I hope are not too many installments in this series, wherein I post retractions, adjustments, and slight backpedals of positions I was happy to thumb my chest and thunder out mighty absolutes. As only five people read this, I feel like I'm safe in confiding here--it's my little courage journal.

Let's have this clear in our minds from the start: I hate Scott Pilgrim. I think, to borrow a line from Spaced it's boil in the bag instant nostalgia for people who's only contact with video games is what they see printed on T-shirts in places like Hot Topic, and it's analogous to when music elitists namedrop bands they ever heard (because if everyone who said they'd listen to Melvins actually listened to the Melvins, they'd be septuple platinum by now) to sound cool. 2010 is shaping up to be a good year solely because I got to see both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim crash and burn at the box office.

The schadenfreude is delicious.

However . . .the Scott Pilgrim game is pretty awesome. Not because of anything to do with Scott Pilgrim (which I am damn sick of typing) but because it's basically an HD version of River City Ransom, by way of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4-player games that were everywhere in the early 1990s. And it's $10. Kinda good.

Not having anything to do in any way shape or form with Michael Cera also helps. Y'know: I kind of wish he'd drown. In the middle of the desert. On Kool-Aid.

I can't say this totally turns my heart around on Scott Pilgrim (it doesn't. Oh lord, how it doesn't) I'm just saying in this one case, something I daily decry led indirectly to something I enjoyed, while Blazblue: Continuum Shift (which I loved the first installment of) managed to be a great big pudding cup of unfocused disappointment.

There is ebb and flow in all things.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Last time we covered, among other things, Russell T Davies' method for ending series--to constantly escalate the threat beyond all logic and credibility only to neatly yank the rug out from under it with some dopey deus ex machina.

So when the time came for Steven Moffat (he who wrote the most well-regarded episodes of the various series through Davies' tenure as showrunner) to take over, there was plenty of interest in what he would do with things. For all that Davies stuff was a bit slapdash, it had been successful, so there was some wisdom in not straying too far from what worked.

Here's how Steven Moffat solves problems: In a eight-minute short, the Doctor, who has pulled a past incarnation of himself forward in time solves a universe destroying problem because he remembers his past self watching him fix the problem, so he retroactively knew how to do it.

Read that sentence until you go insane. That's the kind of methodology we're dealing with here.

OK, so that was the approach, and after the regeneration set up the appearance of the new Doctor, anticipation ran high. This was, in itself a bit of a farce, as when Matt Smith had been announced, Who fans had done such wailing and gnashing of teeth about how young he was, how he came from nowhere, and how the closest role he'd had to anything on Doctor Who previously was banging Billie Piper in that Secret Diary of a Call Girl show.

So everyone was braced for this to land with a thud, and there was much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth as everyone prepared for Matt Smith to be the worst Doctor since the Sixth.

On the way to his premiere episode (setting side the teaser from "The End of Time," of course) a funny thing happened. With every promo, with every tantalizing bit of seeing him in action, opinions began to change. He was certainly different to the Tenth Doctor--he certainly gurned less--and he seemed to be a bit less manic, a lot more mysterious, and a lot more upbeat, generally, than the Tenth had been.

And then, this happened: At the climax of his opening episode, "The Eleventh Hour," The Doctor, having returned Prisoner Zero to this week's aliens what were threatening the Earth, he summons them back to give them a jolly telling off for daring to threaten a world he's rather put a lot of work into. The aliens flash a picture of the Doctor's enemies, followed by an image of the previous ten Doctors, the last of which Eleven walks through and declares himself the Doctor. It's a great "punch your fist in the air" moment for the long-term fans and at the same time it's a declaration of purpose--yes, this is the new Doctor, and this is the direction we're going in now.

Eleven is generally a bit more laid back than the Tenth. When he does his big "don't screw with the Doctor" speeches, they tend to be delivered more terse and quietly than Ten's, and while he has a great affection for humans, he's also not above coming down on them like a ton of bricks when they fail to live up to his expectations. He's in to noticing everything (as he often entreats people to do, despite being forgetful at critical moments) and he definitely has an alien sense to him, as if he's watching humanity at a remove. He also loved bowties and fezzes and reminds one in bits of Bucklaroo Banzai, which is, of course, just fine with me.

Not that it was a complete departure from what had gone before. Once again, the Doctor's story is told primarily through his interaction with a Companion, in this case, Amy (nee Amelia) Pond, who meets the Doctor at the age of eight (in 1996, for those of you who collect metatextuality in Doctor Who), and thanks to his inability to steer the TARDIS all that well, he comes back twelve years later, after the bitterness at being abandoned has made her bitter and cynical (and a gorgeous redhead, but those are my biases at play) and hung up on the Doctor to what could best be termed an unhealthy degree (she is, in fact, the first in-canon example of a Companion doing her own Doctor Who fanfic . . .and heaven knows what else, but I try to avoid speculation in that direction as much as possible. Ahem.) Meanwhile, the Doctor mostly keeps her at arm's length (when it's possible) and tries to steer her more in the direction of her fiancee, Rory.

While Rory isn't as sexy and mysterious as the Doctor, he is reliable and devoted to her (as he proves in the season finale in the most literal way possible) and she to him (as the first series develops, she's holds tighter to Rory than the Doctor) which is a Good Thing, as it means when they get their Happy Ending in the season finale, they've more than earned it, having dodged monsters, death, undeath, and sticky questions of existence and retroactive non-existence that would tie your damn brain in a knot.

This is, on its face, the Rose/Doctor?Mickey triangle, only it's not because this version 1) knows that a Doctor/Companion relationship isn't sustainable without having to do a whole lot of plot contortions (which we'd already seen) and 2) It's not afraid to actually have Rory win this one, instead of dragging Mickey out every now and again so we could laugh at what a sad sack he was and how he'd never pry sweet Rose from the hot angsty Doctor lovin', and eventually he gets slotted off to marry the only other recurring person of colour on the show, because . . .I am way drifting off point and fighting old battles.

The good news is, this series is mostly strong. There are bits I can do without (and in the case of River Song whole characters I can do without) Moffat goes to the well a bit once too often on the elastic potential of time travel and stories then to spin out of his grasp from time to time and this year's big reintroduction--The Silurians--ends up being a big pile of nothing.

But let's accentuate the positive. We get an episode that mostly everyone hated (except me) "Victory of the Daleks" features a horrible redesign of the Daleks which succeeds only in failing on every conceivable level, and a plot wrap-up wherein unrequited love defuses bombs. It doesn't hold together terribly well, if I'm objective.

And yet, it's got a great hook to it, because the damn Daleks actually win, for once. Thankfully, because the stakes aren't "Doctor wins or entire universe dies" the Daleks are actually allowed to successfully put one over on him and get away with it, which is the kind of thing that, as has been said to me recently and I have taken to heart, really helps the credibility of an arch-nemesis. If it's a total shut-out, who really gives a toss?

A similar thing happens with a lone Cyberman, who manages to be way more creepy and threatening than legions of them had been previous, and for the first time in about thirty years, doesn't go out like a bitch. Again--when doing continuing series, it helps immensely to have credible antagonists. Sure, the Doctor will eventually always win because his name's on the title, but it helps if the outcome can be credibly thrown into question as the plot plays itself out, knowhutImean?

But the best thing of all is the ending. For what seemed like forever, and I think I mentioned this last time--Ten always seemed to end every series with the Companion leaving or being taken from him, staring into the middle distance with a mopey look on his face, the music swells, he starts the TARDIS, and something inexplicable happens to set up the next Christmas special. It really made for a down ending after about the third time.

That is so not what we get at the end of Eleventh's first series. We've earned one hell of a happy ending, enduring as we have the slow collapse of time and the universe restarting at the cost of erasing the Doctor, and we definitely get it. Thanks to the fact that nothing can truly pass away if we can hold on to the memory of it (still collecting metatextuality? Add that to the pile) the gang returns and they're off to the next adventure. Together. Happy. Eager to see what's to come. The optimism in them saying, gleefully "we're on our way!" and it doesn't sound mopey or emo or anything. We're moving forward, we don't have to fear or dread what's to come, and it's damn cool.

Like bowties. And fezzes.

As it stands now, we've got a strong first series and a lot to look forward to, I hope, from Eleven. For us, though, and for now, we come to a stopping point. We've gone over nearly fifty years of history, one score and ten of my own in relation to this, and eleven periods in the evolution of this concept.

And depending on when Twelve gets here, I guess we'll pick this back up, won't we?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

MAD MEN 4.3--"The Good News"

"I could tell from the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again. Which is why I never told her."

In which this week's episode gives last week's an episode a run for its money in terms of being depressing, then becomes oddly sweet in the last half.

Under the best of circumstances, Mad Men is not what one might consider the cheeriest show on television. It can be at times, a rather bleak slog through the bleak lives of people we're not altogether sure that we like enough to follow along with, but every now and again, the characters on the show will pull themselves out of their respective personal tailspins and do something for someone else. Naturally, these acts of kindness tend to be as weird as the people doing them, but it's that kind of show.

As last week we saw the welcome return of Freddy Rumson, this week we see the return of Anna Draper. Yes, "Draper" as in "Don Draper's ex-wife, only not." For those who saw the end of the second season, you saw how the whole business of Anna discovering that Don is not her Mr. Draper shook out, and it you're like me, you were quite happy to see her again, especially given Don's present slow-motion meltdown.

For all that Don is charming, chummy, and a gifted salesman, he is ultimately a lonely person. Part of this is a function of being trapped in the Big Lie that is Don Draper--it requires him to keep people at a remove, because to tell them the truth puts him at risk, and the last time he told someone the truth, as he relates to Anna the story of when Betty found out, Betty had no interest in the "real him."

Anna is different, and loves Don unconditionally (Anna and Don may be Mad Men's happiest and most well-adjusted relationship), and bloody hell, doesn't he half need it? Equal parts confidante, needle in the balloon of his ego, and a source of unconditional love that Don desperately needs and has never really had, so when he stops off on his vacation to Acapulco to see her, we're cheered up because this is something Don desperately needs as his life collapses in on itself post-divorce. If Don is feeling alone and self-destructive, the person who can tell him he's not alone and he'll listen is exactly who she needs.

And she tries to bolster him as much as possible while still being evenhanded (yeah, one could hardly blame Betty for divorcing your ass because you were lying to her about who you really were, Don) and there is the wonderful possibility dangled before us that Don will introduce the kids to Anna, because a free-spirited pot-smoking aunt is something all kids growing up should have.

So, naturally, we learn she's dying from bone cancer. And it's so advanced, there's only a short time before the end. Don is crushed--this is his last tether to a place where he can be himself and be happy, out from under the Big Lie. Don scrubs his plans for Acapulco and decides to stay with her until the end to help her, but it's too big and there's nothing he can do because he really doesn't have a meaningful stake in things, a fact slammed full into his face when Anna's sister tells him "You're just a man in a room with a checkbook."

Which is true, and not. Because Don tries to deal with problems from a remove--he takes care of Anna from across the country and only occasionally visits, but you get the impression that for her he would. And he tries gamely, but he can't. And through it all, she gamely encourages him in whatever direction would make him the most happy.

So he perpetuates another Big Lie (Mad Men characters stay trapped in Big Lies. Either complicity or not, deception is constantly isolating them.) I should say here, the moment where Don tell her he has to go is phenomenally played by Jon Hamm and he sells it perfectly, because you don't know whether he's going to tell her the truth or not.

But he doesn't, and he returns to New York. Acapulco lost its luster, so he goes back to the office, which is the only structured reality he has left, really, and it's here he intersects into the other 2 plots of the episode, which we'll take in reverse order.

Lane Pryce is an outsider--he's an indelible reminder that the Real World encroached on Sterling Cooper's boy's club when the British firm bought them out in Season 2. Pryce was their point man, and yet, became acutely aware he was in an untenable position--his bosses just wanted him to spruce up the company so they could sell it, his wife is desperately unhappy living in New York, and everyone at the office dislikes him and considers him an outsider who's just there to fire people. Even Don says this week they haven't been very welcoming.

And yet, he really liked the people there. Without him, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce couldn't have happened. Thanks to some stuff that's been happening off-screen which has driven him into the realm of "obsessive workaholic" and he makes the mistake of pissing off Joan, apologizing, and pissing her off even more with a snafu involving simultaneous flower deliveries.

Now it can be told: Lane is going through a divorce, and he's feeling pretty rudderless. The office is all he really has now, and he spends New Year's Day in the office working because it's easier than the alternative of trying to work out what the hell he's supposed to do now that his life collapses. Don, maybe because he's stinging from the thing with Anna, maybe because he recognizes how lost Lane looks, he decides to help him.

And this is what saves a depressing episode, because they decide to get rip-roaring drunk and go to a Gamera movie, use steaks as belt buckles, and hire a pair of hookers (I know, I know. For Mad Men, this is both a kindness and makes sense) and generally attempt a catharsis for their mutual problems--not that any of us would consider that therapy.

So this is a small and weird act of kindness.

Such is not given to Joan. Joan's character arc is basically that she's been constantly waiting for her life to begin as she has grown acutely aware of how much time is on the clock. She wants what she's always wanted--a husband, a family, and was quite looking forward to the day she could quit her job and be taken care of. I've always thought her hyper-competent, in-control majordomo act at the office has always been a bit of a thwarted maternal instinct.

Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out. Most of this, of course, is due to her husband, who is, depending on who you ask, either the first or second most hated character in Mad Men. The main reason for this is he's a rapist, but beyond that, he's also a raging asshole man-child and on a show that's full of them, he stands above them like a mighty frost-giant. Mad Men is the only show that could create conditions that a person announcing they're going to Vietnam causes people who watch the show to go "Good. I hope his ass gets fragged."

Joan has a moment when she finally gives voice to her anger, and as her asshole doctor husband is telling her it'll be all right and soon they'll be able to get on with planning their life and she finally breaks down and says, "when?" Naturally, her imbecilic doctor husband doesn't pick up any of this, nor the fact that she'd rather go to the hospital than be treated by him for a simple cut on her finger, which says a lot about the quality of doctor he must be.

So. . .yeah. This episode was pretty depressing, with some funny bits interspersed, but on the whole, even the funny bits seemed more like "If we don't laugh, we will kill ourselves because the world as we know it is completely coming unglued. and we don't know what the hell we're going to do." Not the sunniest of places to leave it, eh?

That's all for this week--join us next week when things totally turn around and everyone goes to the circus or has work outside because it's a pretty day or something like that. We're three episodes deep and this bleakness has to break sometime. Join me again next time for "The Rejected." Do not stand behind him, if you value your life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

MAD MEN 4.2--"Christmas Comes But Once A Year"

"My father said this was the greatest job in the world--except for the clients"

In which a number of poor relationship-centred decisions crisscross in and out of Christmastime, and anything but hilarity ensues.

For all his situational ethics, high-handedness, and occasionally wrongheaded decisions, Don Draper has always stuck to one hard-and-fast rule: He never shit where he ate, or to be more specific, he never did what others in his company did and banged secretaries (not that he didn't swim in waters equally dangerous, he just had the presence of mind to not do it in the office. Literally.) However, if a pattern can be said to be emerging in the two episodes of the season so far, it's this--in the wake of his divorce and the pressures of starting a new company, Don is disintegrating, little by little.

Last week, we got a look at how bad, what with not being able to pick up on the supernumerary, blowing the first interview and having to hire hookers to slap him around. Something's happened and everyone can see him, except for him. He's just confused by it, and uncertain of how to handle it, as his preferred option--running away and pretending it didn't happen--isn't on the menu anymore.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--there's a lot more going on her than the deconstruction of Don Draper. For one thing, SCDP welcomes a familiar face back to the fold in the form of a newly sober Freddy Rumson. For those who came in late, Freddy is known for two things--giving Peggy her start and drinking like frigging Dionysus. Oh, and he's also known for pissing all over himself and blacking out, forcing Roger and Don to have to be the ones to fire him, but I was trying to be polite and not mention that.

But that was then, and this is now and Freddy is trying mightily to stay on the wagon, which is no mean feat in an industry when everyone has a drink in one hand at all times.. What's more, he's brought a big-ticket client with him, which is sorely needed in the wake of a client leaving last episode. His contact is also on the wagon, as we're led to believe, as Freddy instructs Roger to keep Pete off the client (to keep him from plying him with liquor) which Roger does by . . .plying him with liquor.

Freddy runs up against another problem--in the two years since he's been out Peggy has her own ideas about advertising and his aren't quite in step with what's happening--this is 1964 and soon to be 1965 after all--and she has the power to shoot his down. Poor Freddy, who's already out of step with everyone because of the drinking thing, is now doubly out of step because the ground is shifting under his feet.

But it's shifting under everyone's feet, in ways large or small. We're treated to an early test of demographic research this time out, and this is the beginning of targeting things to smaller and smaller markets, which puts a dent or two in the older, more creative ways of advertising in favour of doubling down on the right numbers. In the best tradition of the show, everyone treats it like a nuisance at first, so we can chuckle and laugh, because If They Only Knew.

Everyone at SCDP is focused more on a bigger issue. In light of their economically tight circumstances, the office Christmas party has been scaled back to nothing save Velveeta cheese. That, at least is the plan until Lee Garner Jr. calls up and demands they throw a big Christmas party full of booze, food, partying, easy sex, and general shame 24 hours later. This wouldn't be such an issue if they had the money, and if Lee Garner wasn't such a raging asshole.

I should backtrack here and mention Lee Garner is the man behind Lucky Strike cigarettes, which is three-quarters of SCDP's business, so keeping him happy is a priority, and one the entirety of SCDP endures with the kind of fake smiles that you'd imagine people in Stepford wearing as they cater to his whims. Lee gets to act like the douchebag that he is and people get lucky and the Christmas party is a success.

Only not really. Don reacts to his secretary the morning after they've slept together and treats it like it never happened, which he's all to happy to pretend it hasn't (that's his MO) and damn whatever she might feel about it (SPOILER: She's crushed) In more general terms, their nice clean office is kind of a mess, but that's neither here nor there, really.

Meanwhile, is subplot "B" Peggy is grappling with a problem--her boyfriend is pressuring her into having sex and she's making him wait, because--he assumes--that she's a virgin and wants to wait for marriage, which is totally, completely, and utterly, not the case. She asks Freddy's advice on the topic and he tells her to wait, which she discards almost immediately, because Peggy pretty much flies in the face of good advice at least six times out of ten. Doesn't help that her boyfriend's kind of a jerkass, either.

But none of this--not Don breaking the only rule he's managed to consistently stick to for three seasons, not Peggy suddenly deciding to be chaste and then suddenly deciding not to for equally concrete reasons--none of these can equal the fundamental wrong-headedness of Don's daughter Sally hooking up with my longtime favourite recurring character, Glenn.

For those of you who came in late, Glenn is a preadolescent neighbor of the Drapers, and achieves the unique feet for being more screwed up than every other character on the show combined and multiplied by a power of ten. Glenn has distinguished himself thus far by watching Betty Draper use the toilet, getting a lock of her hair and using it for . . .you know what, let's just say "he liked it a lot" and speculate no further so we're all better off, and finally decided to rescue Betty from her depressing circumstances by holing up the playhouse in her backyard. Glenn specialises in "creepy"--it is his true medium.

Case in point: After meeting cute with Sally while the new family is shopping for trees (and brandishing a knife--Girls, be honest: how many of you met your husbands that way?) Glenn ingratiate himself by breaking into her house, and vandalizing every room except hers. Sally considers this oddly sweet (when it's actually oddly ODD) only because her mom's busily screwing her up just as bad and thus her barometer of "good boyfriend, bad boyfriend" is currently inoperative. Glenn, for his part, looks like he will start murdering small animals any minute now, so I can't see how this doesn't end well.

So, uh, yeah. This was not a happy episode. When Mad Men goes dark, it tends to do so with full force--there may be a laugh to be found here and there, but when things go bad, it's like midnight in a goddamned coal mine, and here we are. Everyone sunk to their lowest, acted in ways that make one cringe to remember, and if I know this show, there will be repercussions. Never mind the amount of change that's happening during this time and what it will mean for the gang--people dropping the ball and getting ground up the gears of an ever-changing culture is another Mad Men staple, after all.

That's it for this week. I refuse to acknowledge anything in AMC's previews for next week because they're Sopranos-level misleading. Join us next week when Don dissipates a little bit more, something happens with Joan and her husband, the ever-present football playing doctor rapist, and Batman fights the Hulk in a steel cage to the death in a little thing they're calling in what's sure to be an ironic counterpoint to what actually happens: "The Good News." This'll clinch it!