The first RMIT course reading I was ever assigned was a chapter from ‘The Media Student’s Book’ entitled Approaching Media Texts. Along one page’s margins was the URL for a YouTube video that supposedly exemplified the indexical link between “memory, longing and photographs.” I had watched the clip just a few weeks earlier when I wilfully endured the first season of Mad Men.
I do not hide my distaste for the show (the main cause of this perspective being its characters for which I bear no empathy) but this is perhaps something I’ll delve further into in a future post. Don Draper’s “Carousel” pitch was arguably the highlight of the first season and, despite my misgivings of the series, has remained, in my mind, a remarkable moment for television.
The first thing that strikes me when I watch this scene is the demeanour of the two men that the Sterling Cooper advertising agency host in the board meeting. The pair appear doubtful of their product’s appeal from the outset. This is conveyed through their performance (the man not wearing the glasses, Joe Herman, glances at the wheel complacently and speaks with little confidence) and their dialogue (Lynn Taylor’s “We know it’s hard…”).
With the stage set for Sterling Cooper to pitch their advertising concept to the prospective clients, we are presented with a wide shot of the room and all the men inside it (there is a female assistant in the shot also, but our view of her is obscured by Salvatore Romano’s body – foregrounding the series’ predominant theme of sexism and gender inequality). Don Draper occupies the limelight through his staging in relation to other characters in the scene (he stands while the rest sit) and the lighting employed. The most intense facial soft light is reserved for Draper’s face, a feature that our eye is naturally drawn to by the roof and lamp light sources that seem to bookend his face. The interchange between this shot, a couple of two shots of the attentive ‘projector’ pair and medium shots of Draper foreshadow the impact of the latter’s pitch in the sequence unfolding, where Draper’s voice commands in a soundscape otherwise devoid of speech elements.
A close-up of Draper heralds a defining moment in his speech and draws the viewer’s attention to the elements of his dialogue and performance (evidenced in the pause before the word that will inform the overarching theme of Draper’s monologue: “nostalgia”). Before the nitty-gritty of the scene is to arrive, we are given one last reminder of the sexism that pervades the world of Mad Men through Draper’s addressing of the female assistant as “sweetheart”. Discrimination undercuts this seemingly affectionate term through Draper’s singular instance of acknowledging the woman’s presence as well as the delivery of the word. His inflection seems not to ask “could you turn the lights off?” but “you know the cue, why haven’t you switched them off yet?”.
The subsequent absence of lighting signposts the forthcoming significance of Draper’s pitch. The light of the projector beams toward the camera and becomes the shot’s primary visual attraction, signalling its importance within the scene’s narrative. With the fade in of dramatic music, the board room space that we have become familiar with over the series’ first season seems to complete its transition into a surreal atmosphere that Draper now has full authority over.
The shots featuring projected slides in an otherwise scantily lit space continue to emphasise the centrepiece of Draper’s speech. The slides take on a whole new level of narrative significance when we recognise that they feature photographs of Draper’s family. An appreciation for this sequence thus comes from the aesthetic of how the projector is worked into the show’s seriality. That the projector acts as a tool by which we enter Don’s subjective examination of his marriage and family can be viewed as yet another landmark in the storytelling capabilities of narratively complex television. This spectacle, then, is among many “specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects” (Mittell, p. 35).
The increasing variation of the music accompanying Draper’s speech charts the transition of the projector from one-dimensional, headache-inducing, problematic product to an unexpectedly mythical (“time machine”) and powerfully emotive machine (“it takes us to a place where we ache to go again”). “The wheel” becomes abolished for “the carousel” and it is in the drawn-out, expansive monologue of Don Draper’s that we come to view this latter term as truly encapsulating of the product’s sentiment. Such product refurbishment lends itself to both Mad Men‘s episodic resolutions (Don Draper has, as is usually the case per episode, clinched yet another client through his pitching prowess) and serial aesthetics (the presentation addresses Draper’s ongoing issues with his family).
The writer’s choice of showing the product’s visual advertisement before one last ‘wedding slide’ of Don and Betty foregrounds Mad Men‘s seriality as paramount to its narrative – the episodic resolution a by-product of such a sequence. If this sentiment weren’t clear enough, Harry Crane’s emotional departure from the board room evokes his own marital issues resulting from his infidelity in an episode previous to ‘The Wheel’.
The sequence concludes by rather explicitly invoking a sense of a three-act structure to the scene. The all-but-certain clients simultaneously swivel in their chairs to face Don, mouths ajar and, in the case of Herman, tongues poking in disbelief. The two shot that captures their movement is almost identical to the shot that introduced the men’s apprehensions concerning their product. While not temporally juxtaposed, the visual consistency between these shots marks a clear transition from the scene’s beginning (the despairing businessmen) to its end (they are awe-struck by Don’s ideas), cueing reflection on the causation of such plot development (the scene’s ‘middle’).
Having finished watching the first season of Mad Men, I once told my brother of my disinterest in the program to which he swiftly accused me of lacking the intelligence to appreciate its content. I can’t think of many times I’ve been more furious with my brother than in that instance. Such a statement warrants a discussion on matters of taste which completely misses the point of my dissatisfaction. In justifying his personal struggle to join the masses in appreciating Mad Men, Jason Mittell writes that “a program must start strong enough to inspire viewers to commit to many hours of viewing over weekly installments”. I feel the “Carousel” speech is a diamond in the rough that is Mad Men – a gem that fellow cynics would likely consider found too far down the track to gain our constant viewership.
– Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf
– Mittell, J: On Disliking Mad Men. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at http://justtv.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/on-disliking-mad-men/