Why AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS Is a Hot Mess

Why AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS Is a Hot Mess


connoisseurs have long considered American Movie Classics (AMC) the Pixar of
the small screen: Everything the nearly twenty year-old network touches turns
to gold. But much like Pixar, AMC has recently revealed itself to be only an
imperfect vehicle for screenwriting genius. For Pixar, the first evidence of
decline was the trifling Cars (2006), though the company’s four
subsequent masterpieces (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy
Story 3
) were nearly enough for fans of big-screen animation to forgive
Pixar its latest and most underwhelming efforts: Cars 2 (2011), Brave
(2012), and Monsters University (2013). AMC hasn’t yet experienced quite
the downturn Pixar has, though it’s worth noting, despite the current
popularity of The Walking Dead, that no one would ever confuse either
its writing or its plotting for that of network standouts Mad Men and Breaking
. And that’s why when Hell on Wheels came along in 2011, it
suddenly began to seem like the middling scripts and occasional hammy acting of
AMC’s zombie-apocalypse thriller were something less than coincidental. Hell
on Wheels
, whose third season premiered just two weeks ago, is widely and
justifiably regarded as the worst offering on AMC to date. The reason? Bad
acting, bad scripts, a bad concept, and a long line of small- and big-screen
Westerns that have done everything Hell on Wheels aims to do, but
exponentially better.

Hell on Wheels centers around Cullen Bohannon
(Anson Mount), a former Confederate officer who’s predictably mysterious and
charismatic, though he also has—of course—the heart of a gentleman. Bohannon
leaves his Mississippi home to work on the railroad, an inauspicious life
decision that shortly takes him to Hell on Wheels, the tent city that follows
the leading edge of the Union Pacific railroad. The landowning Southerner
Bohannon released all his slaves prior to the onset of the Civil War; this is
hammered home repeatedly in the show’s early episodes, lest viewers begin
questioning the likability of a man whose sole occupation at present is
murdering former Union soldiers he has a grudge against. Of course, even
Bohannon’s half-secret homicidal agenda is entirely in keeping with the ground
rules for a television anti-hero: he’s trying to track down the men who
assaulted and killed his wife. However, the fact that he doesn’t know his wife
was murdered when he begins his rampage (incredibly and inexplicably, he
believes her to have committed suicide after being raped) undercuts his steely
determination somewhat.

not entirely clear what there is about Cullen Bohannon to draw admiration or
even interest. Like thousands of others of his era, he’s a reasonably
good-looking former soldier who occasionally led men in battle capably, who in
the postwar era soon discovered that the homeland he’d once fought for no
longer existed. If it weren’t for the focus of AMC’s cameras, one would expect
such a man to live and die anonymously doing hard labor somewhere in the
American West, or drinking himself to a stupor in Dixie. Given even the
dull-witted viewer’s near-certainty that Bohannon will find and ultimately
execute his wife’s murderers—coincidentally, he’s only got one man left to kill
by the third episode of the series—it’s not at all clear where the character’s
story should go, and there’s no particularly compelling reason for a viewer to
stick around and find out. Anson Mount may be an attractive and suitably
understated leading man, but even a likely suspect for the role can do little
with such thin gruel.


show’s supporting cast is equally uninspiring. Tom Noonan plays Reverend Cole,
the obligatory fish-out-of-water evangelist tasked with converting sinners
obviously beyond his reach; as in his appearances elsewhere (ranging from the
great Manhunter to the criminally
underrated films What Happened Was
and Synecdoche, New York), Noonan plays “creepy” exceedingly
well but “ethereal” and “wise” with a glaring ineptitude.
You’d hardly let the man babysit your children, let alone shepherd you to
eternity. Colm Meaney plays a vaguely Irish heavy the way he always has: By
raising his voice and indulging in a series of facial tics that would make
Elmer Fudd blush. Common—a rapper, not an actor—does his level best as recently
freed slave Elam Ferguson, but his every utterance is so charged with
bitterness and dormant rage that it’s a wonder anyone in 1865 would hire him in
the first place, let alone make him de facto spokesman for Union Pacific’s
overworked and underpaid black linemen. Dominique McElligott, clearly slated to
be Bohannon’s love interest from the moment she appears on screen—her bookish
land surveyor husband is predictably written out of the script almost
immediately—is a talented enough actress, but the presence of a British lady in
the midst of Cheyenne territory in 1865 is so contrived as to offend even the
most credulous of viewers. The less said about the show’s heavily-accented
comic relief the better: Ben Esler and Phil Burke do yeoman’s work bringing
outrageous Irish stereotypes back into vogue, as two entrepreneurs whose
unlikely business plan involves a “magic lantern” and blurry slides of Irish
vistas. As AMC has a long history of airing the best ensemble shows on American
television, it’s not exactly clear what’s happened here. Of the ten to fifteen
regulars on Hell on Wheels, it seems all but two or three were chosen by
a ear-plugged and blindfolded talent scout who’d never seen any of their
previous work nor watched even a single specimen of the Western genre.

exception to the above is Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays Thor Gundersen, a
ex-Union quartermaster from Norway whose experiences as a POW in Andersonville
prepared him well for his new life as a Union Pacific enforcer. Appropriately
spectral and menacing, Heyerdahl’s performance is undercut by the fact that he
hasn’t actually been given much to do except illegally skim from the company
and shadow Bohannon as he moves about the camp. It’s bad enough that Gundersen,
known in Hell on Wheels as “The Swede,” suspects Bohannon of killing
a company hack on little evidence, as it undercuts viewers’ confidence in his
(strongly implied) intelligence. Far worse are his repeated and coyly cryptic
intimations, to anyone who’ll listen, that “there’s something strange”
about Bohannon. In fact, what supposedly makes the show’s leading man unusual is
the same hackneyed revenge plotline we’ve seen in everything from Django
to Gladiator.


most surprising about Hell on Wheels is how poorly written it is.
Meaney’s Thomas Durant is so hamfistedly villainous that he actually slanders
the just-murdered husband of Lily Bell (McElligott) and tries to
ingratiate himself with her romantically during the same horribly contrived
dinner-date. The racial animus between Elam Ferguson and several white Union
Pacific men, much like the cross-racial sexual attraction between Ferguson and
Eva (Robin McLeavy), a former white slave turned prostitute, is so awkwardly
handled and woodenly written it makes the scriptwriters of Glory seem
screenwriting prodigies by comparison. Even Bohannon, who’s been given some of
the show’s better lines, turns in such a desultory performance as a railroad
foreman and selfless do-gooder that he receives from even credulous viewers
only slim credit for either role. One suspects the show’s writers simply had
too much confidence in their creations to realize they’d given them nothing
actually interesting to do or say–a circumstance made all the more surprising
by the fact that watching any previous Western would have offered
sufficient guidance on what mustn’t be done yet again. Instead, there’s hardly
any Western trope that Hell on Wheels fails to not only exploit but
wallow in: a hero of few words; a helpless lady; hapless immigrant sidekicks; a
cunning and humorless adversary; a greedy and unscrupulous businessman; a
“converted savage” (Eddie Spears as Joe Moon, a baptized Cheyenne
whose soul-searching is tiresome and trite); a preacher out of his depth; a
dark secret that leads to many deaths; and so on. Deadwood this is not;
that show, the best small-screen Western this side of Lonesome Dove,
gave us fully-realized characters whose eccentricities and complex moral codes
were entirely novel, and whose alternately dastardly and heroic deeds were, in
consequence, entirely astonishing.

the real culprit behind the lackluster presentation of Hell on Wheels
is the show’s central conceit: A mobile city of tents that follows the Union
Pacific railroad as it makes its way slowly West. The show makes virtually no
use whatsoever of the transient and ephemeral nature of Hell on Wheels, as not
only does the cast remain fairly static, there are also no major plotlines
associated with having to strike camp and move the entire town every few days.
Nor can the show do much with its 1865 setting, as the fallout from the Civil
War was—at that early point in the Reconstruction process—more or less
predictable, presaged as it was by similarly sudden cessations of military
hostilities in other nations throughout the eighteenth and seventeenth
centuries. 1865 is simply too early for America to have done much
soul-searching with respect to its recent near-dissolution, and consequently
the former soldiers of Hell on Wheels are left asking one another easy
questions like “Who did you fight for?”, “Did you own
slaves?”, and (worst of all) “Did you have sex with any?”
Meanwhile, Durant’s ambition to squeeze as much money as he can out of Union
Pacific’s manifest destiny-driven enterprise is little different from that of
any other war profiteer or shifty-eyed businessman. That the expansion of the
nation’s railroads to California represented for war-torn America a chance to
self-realize its grand ambitions has been so thoroughly investigated in all
forms of media that Hell on Wheels would need to go to extraordinary
lengths to add to that narrative, and it doesn’t.

has, by now, earned enough trust from its viewership, including this author,
that one finds oneself searching for some complicated explanation for the noxious
badness of Hell on Wheels–rather than simply accepting that AMC
greenlighted a project it should not have. Did the network, one wonders, worry
that it hadn’t yet ventured into Westerns, and was it thus predisposed to pull
the trigger on Joe and Tony Gayton’s flimsy script? Was it hoping to stand on
the coattails of the nation’s abiding interest in Southern culture, as
epitomized by present ratings king Duck Dynasty? Did it see, in the
moderate success of A&E’s Longmire, a possible opening for yet another
cowboy hero? Were the lush settings promised by a Western like Hell on
simply too much for a cash-flush operation like AMC to resist? Were
AMC executives seduced by writer Tony Gayton’s pedigree, a pedigree that
includes a film-school diploma from USC and an apprenticeship to John Milius, who
was, among other things, the creator of HBO’s excellent but equally
expensive Rome? Certainly, the network must have seen something in
the Gaytons, Tony particularly, yet it’s not at all clear what: Tony’s previous
television work was limited to a single made-for-TV movie in 2006, and he’s
been credited on only five feature films, none of which were notable (the only
exception being 2010’s Faster, which starred Dwayne “The Rock”
Johnson yet grossed only $35 million worldwide).

Critics have been predictably unkind to Hell on Wheels. The
Huffington Post
it “tedious,” TV Guide
USA Today
subtle as a sledgehammer,”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“cartoonish,” The Philadelphia
Daily News
and Variety
and herky-jerky.”
Slate, The New York Times, and The Los
Angeles Times
said much the same. Two glowing reviews from The
Washington Post
and The Boston Globe notwithstanding, even the
positive write-ups in Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, The
New York Post
, The Miami Herald, and The Wall Street Journal
seemed to conclude that the show was solid if unspectacular, a significant
come-down for a network accustomed to scooping up Emmys by the handful. 

final nail in the coffin for Hell on Wheels is that scourge of all
television programs that begin slowly: Most viewers simply won’t have the
patience to find out if the show’s writers ultimately find their footing. And
given that the aggregate reviews for the second and third seasons of Hell on
are not so different from those for the first–Metacritic lists
Season 2 as a middling 60, and (with only four reviews thus far) Season 3 as a
possibly promising 74–it’s not certain that Hell on Wheels can offer
viewers much payoff, even with the long runway it’s been given. If you
absolutely love Westerns; if you’re an AMC completist; if you’re willing to
laugh out loud at dialogue you know isn’t intended to be funny; if you find
either Anson Mount or Dominique McElligott eye-catching enough to warrant
squandering much of your down-time, by all means see if you can muster the
energy to make it to Season 3 of Hell on Wheels. The rest of us will
just have to be satisfied with the final episodes of Mad Men and Breaking
, and remembering fondly the network’s other triumphs: an episode here
and there of The Walking Dead; the first season of The Killing;
and much if not all of the single-season run of Rubicon. As
cable-network track records go, that’s still a pretty good one.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.



The most striking aspect of tonight’s episode was our introduction to German mega-company Madrigal Elektromoteren (and, of course, the short-order introduction and elimination of suit Herr Schuler, who was clearly complicit in the late Mr. Fring’s meth empire, though we don’t quite know yet to what degree). The episode’s opening scene (below), with Herr Schuler absently munching chicken fingers as a scientist explains the money-saving formulas in their dipping sauces, seems absurd at first, until you think of the number of times Herr Schuler had to taste the “authentic” blend of spices for the meth-concealing Pollos Hermanos chicken recipe. Schuler is distracted, and we find out very quickly why: apparently, there are police here to see him, and more of them than last time, according to his assistant. Uh oh.

As Schuler makes his way toward his self-inflicted demise, we’re shown just how far-reaching the Madrigal empire is as he passes the backlit logos of fast-food chains such as Whiskerstay’s, Haau Chuen Wok, Burger Matic (hilariously abbreviated to “BM”), and Pollos Hermanos. (It’s also worth noting that these fast food chains are most likely just a fraction of Madrigal’s overall business; I would imagine a majority of what they produce relates to auto parts, judging from the “Elektromoteren” part of their name.) Schuler pauses to watch two workmen take down the Pollos sign, clearly wondering how such an innocuous-sounding fast food joint could have possibly led to his undoing. For us, one thing’s for sure: Hank’s excellent police work has traced a few of the superlab’s equipment pieces back to Madrigal, and Schuler is on borrowed time. As Schuler passes by his office, he watches one of the Polizei eyeballing a picture of himself and Gus Fring golfing in happier times, and decides this can’t be worth it. Gus must have seemed like such a sure thing. Well, until Walt came along.

Another large chunk of tonight’s show was dedicated to Jesse and Walt’s “search” for the ricin cigarette (below), the loss of which triggered their rift last season when Brock fell ill from an apparent poisoning. Jesse is obviously made distraught by its absence, but Walt can’t really explain to him why one of Saul’s goons lifted it from him without coming clean about the Lily of the Valley, so he gets to work not only hiding the actual ricin vial (it may come in handy again sometime, so he hides it in an electrical outlet; I’m sure that’s going to be important again soon), but also creating a dummy cigarette and helping Jesse discover it in his Roomba to give him some peace of mind (and I have to give it to the sound department here; every sound of Walt and Jesse rifling through the apartment during the montage has a rhythmic quality that syncs with the musical cue, adding to the scene’s urgency while also increasing the fun factor of watching). Executed with perfect Walter White-style conniving trickery, he even gets Jesse to cry from the guilt he feels for even thinking about shooting him last season, allowing Walt to slip right back into father figure mode, further bonding Jesse to him.  Of course, this also gives Walt the perfect opportunity: “What happened, happened for the best, you hear me?…Having each other’s back?  It’s what saved our lives. And I want you to think about that as we go forward.”  “Go forward where?”

It was also interesting to see Mike essentially forced into a position where he had to take Walt’s offer of partnership. Between Lydia’s high-strung desire to eliminate everyone even remotely connected to the Pollos empire and Hank’s discovery of the account in his granddaughter’s name, Mike doesn’t seem to have much choice. Of course, it’s helpful that Lydia still has some methlamine connections, otherwise there’d be no precursor, but her character (played by Laura Fraser) is far too high-strung and nervous (her “you’re really running me through my paces” line when she finds out that the roadside diner doesn’t have any tea other than Lipton’s was perfect) to be good news for the Heisenberg empire in the long run. She’s already sold Mike out to his own guys, and she’ll be sure to do whatever she can to protect herself and her little girl (and her amazing house, too). I suspect that that Mike’s decision to not kill her had something to do with her having a little girl. However, her ability to get methlamine, thus getting Walt’s operation back up and running, will allow Mike to keep earning money for his favorite little girl, as his old Fring account has, for all intents and purposes, gone bye-bye.  Still, though, she may have been able to hide behind the financial machinations of Madrigal’s support of Pollos’ not-so-little secret when Gus was still around, but without him, she’s an exposed nerve, and a very jumpy one at that. Not good for anyone, least of all Ol’ Mike.

Mike’s interaction with Hank and Gomez was fantastic, as well. At this point, most viewers have affinities with both characters (Hank and Mike, at least), so watching them interact with each other is always fun because it’s so hard to pick a side.  Hank is natural police, and he knows how to get under even Mike’s skin. But Mike, being the road-worn soldier that he is, has seen it all, even, apparently, from the law enforcement perspective, and it’s always a pleasure to watch Jonathan Banks play Mike’s eye-rolling resignation, even while realizing the money for which he’s taken a lot of crap is essentially gone. Of course, he saves his pissed face for when he’s walking out the door; as far as Hank and Gomey are concerned (at least, on the record), he’s cool as a cucumber, and only tangentially connected to Fring’s quickly-unraveling drug web.

And, as in Live Free or Die, this episode features yet another cringe-inducing scene with Walt and Skyler (below), in which Walt willfully ignores Skyler’s paralyzed fear in order to feign intimacy with her. She doesn’t say a single word as he prattles on about dinner and how “it gets easier,” and then proceeds to kiss and grope her as she clutches her pillow so tightly it looks like it might disintegrate. “When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about,” Walt waxes, kissing Skyler’s neck. “And there’s no better reason than family.”  This is no longer Walter White trying to get himself out of the dog house. This is Heisenberg. This is Heisenberg’s house, and he has just found out that Mike is back in, and that the Southwestern meth trade is his for the running, and he doesn’t need to justify anything to anyone. This is Heisenberg telling his wife how it is, and how it’s going to be from now on; that there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no monster under the bed . . . at least no monster that could compare to the one that roams this house.

But, we all know things are going to change, and Walt’s overconfidence will surely play a large part in his eventual undoing. If the M60 he receives on his 52nd birthday is any indication, his current attitude is going to result in Walt finally digging a hole for himself that he can’t undig, and there will be lots of needless bloodshed. 

Dave Bunting is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink, and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and real estate. Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.



Most nights I watch Mad Men on my living room couch with a computer in my lap. Tonight I watched at a terrific New York City bar, at the Basket of Kisses Season Finale Party, sitting next to Rich Sommer. It was a fantastic experience: Cheers, applause, shock—there's truly nothing like sharing the show with a large, respectful, enthusiastic audience. Respectful, because they're quiet enough that no dialogue is missed, but enthusiastic enough to burst into cheers when Pete gets punched out, and then punched out again—at which point I said, "Joan was right—everybody does want to take a pop at Pete Campbell." Watch the clip:

When Don was watching Megan's screen test, I whispered to Rich, "Do you need to leave the room crying?" Obviously, that scene was meant to remind us of Don's famous "Carousel" speech in the Season 1 finale, The Wheel, in which Don looks with love and longing at a slideshow of his family, including his then-wife Betty. Now he looks at his second wife, and his longing and love are again visible.

nullThis episode was filled with doubles and references, doublings back and reboots. Just as the screen test revisits the slideshow from the Season 1 finale, the meeting with Topaz Pantyhose revisits the finale of Season 4, Tomorrowland. In that episode, Peggy won the Topaz account, saving the then-desperate SCDP. Now, SCDP is in great shape, but they might lose Topaz because Peggy is no longer there. "We've never had problems with this client before," Ginsberg says, but they have to start from scratch. Ginsberg is also a double—for Peggy. He is Don's new whipping boy/protégé and junior genius.

Adam Whitman is a revisit, a "phantom" from the title, and Lane's suicide by hanging is the second such suicide of the series. Adam did it first, in Season 1, and Don is haunted by the memory. Phantoms are not just the ghosts of the dead, of course. As Megan's mother, Marie, so cruelly notes, they are the ghosts of our dreams as well. We believe there is a thing that will make us happy, but it is a phantom. When we grasp for it, it eludes us, as Beth eludes Pete. Pete's monologue to Beth is itself haunting, and too beautiful to leave unwatched:

There are three interwoven motifs in The Phantom, that of depression, that of restarting, and that of doubling. Obviously they connect to each other; Beth's cure for depression is a restart, a literal wiping out of her memories so she can start fresh without knowing what caused her pain last time, while Roger's cure for it (or for the fear it will come) is a doubling: He wants to do LSD a second time. Megan drinks wine at home during the day like Betty did, and Rebecca's remarkable, angry slap-down of Don and his check reminded me (and my sister) of Anna Draper's sister in Season 4, who called Don "just a man in a room with a check." Neither woman felt like Don's money gave him any right to access a family's private grief.

I pretty much told everyone that Matt Weiner inserted the James Bond references as a personal gift to me. That may not be accurate (it's fun to say, though), but we share our love of 007. There were two James Bond references in The Phantom–the movie Don and Peggy are seeing is Casino Royale (the comedy starring David Niven). 1967 was a year with two Bond movies, which kind of doubles down on the double identity theme. The second reference is the closing song: You Only Live Twice (considered by many to be the greatest Bond melody), which references doubling not only in the name but in the theme, which addresses rebirth after a faked death (Dick Whitman, anyone?).

So, everything reverts, returns, and wipes out. Everyone is in shock therapy. Partly, there's a lot of real human grief here. Roger wants to see Marie so he can find life again after death came so close. Don wants to give something to Rebecca that will make him feel some closure. Pete sees death everywhere he looks, and even though he verbally rejects suicide, the swimming pool he wanted suddenly looks like a drowning pool. Joan wants to know why, and, after prostituting herself to become a partner, she finds a way to believe she should have done so for Lane. Joan struggles in two ways to find value after what happened to Lane and to her: First, by proving herself as a partner, from her mannish suit to her assiduous assessment of numbers, and second, by believing, nonetheless, that her only value is sexual. The only way to have saved Lane, she thinks, would have been to sleep with him. Poor Joanie!

An awesome crew of two was at our Finale Party, filming people naming their favorite quotes and characters, as part of the DVD extras for Season 5. I had to say, much to my own surprise, that Joan Harris is my favorite. Her extraordinary vulnerability and need to please sits in such strange and beautiful contrast to her competence and brains. I never thought, in Season 1, that I would come to love her so.

So, tonight was a beautiful experience for me. An excellent episode, an exciting party among a hundred or more excited fans, and a whirlwind of emotions to chronicle. It was not, I have to say, exactly conducive to writing a careful episode review, since I took no notes and started writing a good forty minutes later than usual. I hope you'll forgive a slightly choppy review in exchange for sharing some of that experience with you. Tonight is also the wrap-up of my first season of writing for Press Play. It's been exhausting and gratifying, and I hope I'll be able to continue my contributions about Mad Men and possibly other media.

Some additional thoughts:

  • I had a dentist in the spire of the Chrysler Building, this is the truth, my hand to God.
  • Please don't ask me about two dogs fucking. I have no idea.
  • John Slattery has a much nicer ass than I would have anticipated. Also, I never imagined I'd have the chance to write that sentence.
  • Quote of the week is tough without my usual meticulous note-taking, so I'll go with "What is Regina?" because it's funny and a little smutty and I remember it (thanks again, Roger Sterling, who wins this and every season with the most quotes of the week).

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Watch Mad Men Moments, a series of videos on Mad Men, produced by Indiewire Press Play.



"Everything you think’s going to make you happy just turns to crap."

nullLast week, Megan was annoyed with the Jaguar ad campaign. A wife is a Buick in the garage, she said with a touch of bitterness, but a mistress is an exotic and temperamental Jaguar. I don't know what kind of car Don Draper drives these days, but it's not a Jaguar, and at the end of Commissions and Fees, the person driving that ordinary car was the only one who was happy.

Rest in peace, Lane Pryce.

I've been doing this recap dance long enough to know that even when I imagine I have nothing to say, there are plenty of words to come. Yet I am in the strange position of feeling that the very act of writing is disrespectful to what I have just seen. Lane felt, tonight, like a person, not a character. A person we lost. A person Don tried desperately to treat with dignity. A person who deserves, not a recap, but a eulogy.

Rest in peace, Lane Pryce.

The things we want, the magical, out-of-reach things, they just don't work. Glen knew it, in the end, as quoted above. Don pitched the living shit out of Dow Corning. He pitched desire. He pitched never being happy enough as a net positive, as a sign of life. McManus (the current agency) is just bringing them happiness, just bringing them success, but Don insists that's not enough.

In Episode 5.01, A Little Kiss Part 1, Trudy said to Pete, "Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition." This is, essentially, Don's pitch: "What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness."

The magical, impossible, unmanageable thing, the thing we think we want but which cannot satisfy us, is clearly represented by Jaguar. That's the pitch. Remember last week: "If they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach and a little out of our control"? Jaguar is so fundamentally unsatisfying you can't even kill yourself in it. Poor Lane, so desperate, and relying on such notoriously shoddy engineering. Watch the failed attempt:

The clip is funny, and its bona fides have been fully established, with the two prior episodes making sure we understand that Jaguars just don't start. It's also tragic, since lousy English technology won't stop Lane, who loves the U.S. and weeps that he will lose his visa—he kills himself instead in an office lavishly decorated in Americana. The position in which he hung himself meant that one of his last sights was his replica of the Statue of Liberty. Ah, Lane, the American Dream failed you, and you didn't even enjoy that moment before you needed more happiness.

Don will blame himself, you can already see that. He has shame and remorse all over his face when he hears the news. Last week, Joan touched him kindly and said, "You're a good one." It's likely he married Megan because she believed he was good, but it's the one thing he never believes of himself. He often does terrible things, but Megan was right in Tomorrowland, he always tries to do better.

How impotent his efforts to do good must feel to him now; that much is obvious in the bitter way he condemned the partners for voting last week without him: "Should I leave so you all can do whatever you want?" he pointedly asks.

He couldn't save Joan from Herb. He couldn't save Lane from himself. In the back of his mind, always, is that he couldn't save Adam (his brother, who hung himself in Season 1), and probably that he couldn't save the real Don Draper (whose death can be blamed on Dick Whitman). The only one he could save was Glen Bishop, for whom he could fulfill a simple wish. "We’re worried about you," he said of young people in Episode 5.03, Tea Leaves. He can't prevent Sally from becoming a woman (and "spreading her legs to fly away" as Emile Calvet would have it), or save lives that should be saved. But he can take Glen driving. Sometimes we can only do little things.

Megan, too, is intensely protective of children, protecting Glen, she says, because she wasn't able to protect Sally. Substituting a lesser form of protection for a more necessary one is a motif this episode.

But instead of talking about themes or motifs, I would rather describe streams: two directions in which this episode flows. One is towards dissatisfaction, dissolution, and death, the other is towards life, rebirth, and becoming. Creation and destruction, momentum and inertia: the two great forces of life. Don tried to talk to Lane about starting over, and in fact, I think Don was as kind as humanly possible. When he says, "I’m doing the most decent thing I could possibly do," he is telling the truth. But Lane is not flowing towards rebirth as Don advises, he is unwinding, and the only kind thing Don can do is lay Lane gently to rest on the couch.

Sally, on the other hand, flows towards rebirth as a woman. Her first "date" with Glen may not have been very romantic, but it was very satisfying for her (until it became too much, physically and metaphorically). Her movement towards sexuality, innocent as it is, is life-affirming, just as Roger's boredom with sex is life-denying. Roger, whose enlightenment "wore off," is in the stream of dissolution with Lane.

There are a lot of ways to talk to a young girl about her first period. What Betty said was lovely, and also important; she talked about babies, and about a healthy body, and about Sally joining in the grand cycle: the stream of becoming that will come around to Sally's someday being in the mother role that Betty is in today. Ask any mother—when we have children of our own, our relationships with our own mothers are transformed. Betty, with her arms around Sally, sees Sally becoming herself, sees her own mother and her future granddaughter in a stream as circular as Betty's arms when they envelop her daughter.

Easter is mentioned several times, and Lane specifically talks about resurrection to Joan—all this while snow is visible through the window. Winter and spring. Death and rebirth.

Rest in peace, Lane Pryce.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Suicide has been foreshadowed heavily all season. In this episode, it was Betty's turn: "I wanted to know if you would have any problem with me strangling Sally." Sally, of course, is not the one who ends up strangled.
  • Betty's could be the quote of the week, but instead I'm giving it to Kenny: "I don’t mind waiting 20 minutes for an unspecified meeting with my boss. I mean, it’s not like your imagination would run wild."
  • For her museum date, Sally wore the go-go boots Megan had bought her in At the Codfish Ball: the boots that Don made her take off because they were too mature.
  • The drive from Park Avenue to Hotchkiss Academy in Lakeville, Connecticut is just about 100 miles each way.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Watch Mad Men Moments, a series of videos on Mad Men, produced by Indiewire Press Play.


MAD MEN Recap 10: The Other Woman

Girl, you really got me going, you got me so I don't know what I'm doing.

nullThe Other Woman may be the most disturbing episode of Mad Men ever. We've seen bad things happen to characters we love, some of their own doing. We've seen Don drink himself into a stupor, Roger lie the company almost into ruin, and Lane embezzle. We've seen the way both ambition and love can cause people to sacrifice themselves, but has anyone suffered more than Joan, or sacrificed more?

The fans have gone back and forth on Pete this season. In my recap for Signal 30, I called Pete a shit. I got some blowback from fans for that, and indeed, in subsequent episodes, Pete has again appeared more sympathetic. His pathetic adoration of Howard's wife, Beth, in Dark Shadows, touched people's hearts. But now I think more people will agree with my earlier assessment. Pete is a low-life and a shit, not just because he asked Joan to prostitute herself, but because he insisted there was nothing wrong with asking. Watch:

When Joan said "You couldn't afford it," it was not, in fact, a counter-offer, but a way of shutting Pete down; only Pete's insensitivity made him think otherwise. Pete takes seriously the old joke, often attributed to Winston Churchill: Churchill is said to have approached a lady at a party and ask, "Madame, would you sleep with me for one million pounds?" She agreed that she would. "Would you sleep with me for ten pounds?" he asked.  "Certainly not! What kind of girl do you think I am?" "Madame," he answered "We have already established what you are. Now we are merely discussing price." (I've read various versions of this story, with different price points.)

The joke has a serious underpinning, as so many jokes do. All women are whores, we are being told, and are merely negotiating price. Joan literally prostitutes herself for a partnership, but Gail, who "raised her to be admired," has been prostituting herself in her own way to Apollo, in exchange for household repairs. Megan must prostitute herself in a small way, by being displayed. Turning around and showing her ass has little or nothing to do with the callback; she thought she was safe because the director was "a fairy," but with three men on the couch it's clear she doesn't feel safe at all. At the office, her friend Julia is happy to sexually display herself to a roomful of writers in the hopes of getting a job as a Jaguar girl.

Even Peggy had money thrown at her, quite literally, and even Peggy knows she has to sell a woman's sexuality (Lady Godiva, "as naked as we are allowed to make her") to keep an account.

The most telling, most obvious, quote about the theme of this episode is what Don says in the Jaguar pitch, right down to the tagline:

Oh, this car. This thing, gentlemen. What price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive, if they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach and a little out of our control? Would we love them like we do? Jaguar: At last something beautiful you can truly own.

While women are being prostituted, bought, and sold because they are things, the way beautiful, temperamental cars are things, men imagine they are the ones who suffer, because sometimes they can't quite control the transaction. The tagline itself is shown as being born from anger at women: Ginsberg sees Julia prancing and says "She just comes and goes as she pleases. Huh."

Why shouldn't she? I mean, she's human, isn't she? Isn't that what humans do—use self-will to make their own decisions? But to Ginsberg and many other men, a woman isn't a human, she's an object of desire, and her ability to make herself desirable and then still have self-will is enraging. To Ginsberg, the lyrics of the closing song (You Really Got Me by the Kinks) make him mad: "You really got me going" is something women do to men, which men can't control.

It's disturbing. The whole episode is disturbing, and Semi Chellas and Matt Weiner pull no punches, juxtaposing every inner cringe Joan experiences with the pitch so that there is no doubt they are the same thing. Don wants to control Megan and keep her home, Pete wants to control Trudy and 'put his foot down', his greatest anger being simply that he cannot get her to obey him, that she wants things he doesn't want. Pete, who wants a prostitute in a brothel to treat him like her king, cannot abide the fact that any woman has self-will. This is the same Pete who, in Episode 1.05: 5G, asked Trudy to sleep with an editor in order to get him published—no wonder he thinks Joan shouldn't be insulted.

But there's another quote that speaks to the heart of women being bought and sold. In the conference call about Chevalier Blanc, the client asks, "Why would a woman buy a man anything for Valentine’s Day?"

Why indeed? Valentine's Day is transactional: A man buys flowers or perfume or jewelry, a woman responds with sex. Men are the subjects, they have self-will; they make their selection and choose the purchase price, while women are the objects being purchased.

I could write for hours about this episode, but we really have to talk about Peggy.

Her decision has been a long time coming, and may be necessary. I mean, people didn't job-hop in the 1960s the way they do now, but advertising was its own animal, and as a career decision this was probably one hundred percent right.

Here's the thing: in business, you sell yourself. Ted Chauogh wants to hire Don's protégé, and he negotiates with Peggy over price and title. It's not sexual; Peggy's gender is not part of the transaction. Yet the negotiation perfectly parallels what Joan did with a percentage and a partnership. We all do sell ourselves for work, for ambition, to succeed.

Certainly a lot of feminist and other theory would tell us it's all prostitution: Marriage, dating, Valentine's Day, casting couches, and every other transaction in which men are the buyers. But when we look at it that way, we can forget how painful this particular act of prostitution is for Joan, and let's not forget that. Last episode we saw her say she has some control at work, and how important that's been for her. This wasn't just a sexual transaction, it was one that stripped Joan of her sense of control, of self-ownership, and left a dark place behind her eyes, brilliant portrayed by Christina Hendricks.

Meanwhile, Peggy sacrificed love for ambition, because truly, she and Don love each other: Watch him kiss her hand, and her choke up in response:

This clip parallels the end of Episode 4.07: The Suitcase. Don kisses the hand that he held then, he honors the love they share. But as Roger said last episode, it's every man for himself, there can be no loyalty in business.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Welcome back, Dale! Mark Kelly played copywriter Dale in one episode of each of the first three seasons, and was last seen stripped to his t-shirt after getting spattered with blood in Episode 3.06: Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.
  • I'm giving quote of the week to Pete, because "It’s an epic poem for me to get home" is a gorgeous bit of hyperbole.
  • Ted Chaough, Freddy Rumsen, and a call back to Tom Vogel all in one episode (plus Dale). This season has been so great about connecting the dots to past seasons.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Watch Mad Men Moments, a series of videos on Mad Men, produced by Indiewire Press Play.