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Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 9 — “Dark Shadows”

The darkest, most cutthroat episode of the season thus far, with some good reversals. Welcome back to the rat race, folks. And how crackerjack is the modern-day zeitgeist timing on this episode, managing to air on the opening weekend of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows?

10. Henry Francis — Jeez, what does this man see in Betty? Props for somehow maintaining sanity.

9. Pete Campbell — Still fantasizing about Beth. Still hated by all the partners.

8. Bert Cooper — Another deus ex Cooper! Seriously, how much screen time is this guy contracted for?

7. Jane Sterling — Good job negotiating the new apartment, bad job negotiating Roger Sterling’s voraciousness.

6. Roger Sterling — Love to see that the old coyote’s still got some drive and ambition, even if he’s gotta leverage his wealth to stay relevant.

5. Michael Ginsberg — Gifted copywriter who knows ideas are a dime a dozen, and you gotta admire that gutsy confrontation with Don.

4. Betty Draper — Am I crazy in thinking the fat suit might actually be helping January Jones’s acting? As questionable as the Weight Watchers storyline is, it actually had me starting to feel sympathy…and then the writers remind us about that emotional childishness.

3. Don Draper — The edge is back, but why? All he needs to focus is to not have Megan in the office? Ok actually that does make a lot of sense.

2. Megan Draper — Barely outwits Betty, yet ultimately shows that the new Draper couple is an upgrade in emotional stability. Teaching Sally how to cry on command feels almost like Palpatine getting ahold of Anakin.

1. Sally Draper — Totally manipulated by Betty, totally holds her own against Megan, and nearly treated like an adult by Dad. Plus suddenly doing well in school? This character could seriously go anywhere; do we smell a Mad Women spinoff starring Sally Draper in the 70’s???

Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 8 – “Lady Lazarus”

Fell a week behind, but a promise is a promise. I’ll post power rankings for the most recent episode (“Dark Shadows”) within a day or two. Best thing about “Lady Lazarus”: those fantasies of a Gilmore GirlsMad Men crossover coming to fruition.

10. Betty Draper — Probably shouldn’t even be ranked but I actually start to pity her for her lack of screen time. Out of sight, out of mind.
9. Pete Campbell — It’s kind of stunning how a character can have so much fall into his lap and still come out looking like a loser.
8. Sally Draper — Probably still reeling from the event she witnessed last episode. Smart to let it simmer for a week before (I’m assuming) bringing it back to a head next episode.
7. Don Draper — Slightly more of a man in this episode for at least realizing he can’t control his wife.
6. Peggy Olson — Flubbing her lines with Don during the dessert topping pitch was somewhat predictable, but Elisabeth Moss still pulls off the frustration of being a Peggy Olson in a Megan Draper world.
5. Joan Harris — Still the true boss of the office.
4. Beth Dawes — That’s some cold shit you’re playing with Pete, missy. But good work getting back at Howard. Who knew Rory Gilmore would look so good in period?
3. Roger Sterling — The bedrock of sanity in this episode, oddly enough. But where’s my Bert Cooper??
2. Matthew Weiner — Running a Beatles song just because you can is a little show-offy, but I admire the chutzpah in taking another left turn with the new Drapers (see #1). And I do like the looming threat of Don becoming out of touch with the zeitgeist he butters his bread with.
1. Megan Draper — Still overpowered as a character, but I’m definitely curious to see what she does next. Will her departure from the office create more or less time for Betty? And do we care?

Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 7 – “At the Codfish Ball”

Let’s welcome Julia Ormond to the world of Mad Men! Still trying to figure out whether I prefer ascending or descending order for these lists; let’s stick with ascending for now.

10. Pete Campbell — Mostly because we needed to fill a slot. At least he got screen time over Pryce and Cooper.
9. the French language — How do you make Mad Men even classier? Up the amount of French (and accompanying subtitles) by bringing Megan’s parents to town.
8. Roger Sterling — Seriously, was there any doubt about him and Mrs. Calvet from the moment they appeared onscreen together? Kinda wished for a better twist here.
7. Glen Bishop — On television, it’s not totally clear to me why this Sally-Glen relationship still has legs. In real life, being a Weiner might have something to do with it?
6. Don Draper — Still a hound dog, still being manipulated by his (surprisingly) better half.
5. Peggy Olson — Really surprised how whipped Peggy is by boyfriend Abe; what happened to the ambitious girl who exploded in last week’s pitch meeting?
4. Abe Drexler (Peggy’s boyfriend) — See above.
3. Sally Draper — Sticking it to Grandma Francis, clandestine phone calls with Glen, making Papa Draper uncomfortable with your dress AND witnessing Roger Sterling being serviced? Not bad for an episode’s work.
2. Joan Harris — So good to have Joan back in the office. Here we see her returning to her role as Peggy’s advisor in the ways of womanhood; her congratulating Peggy on moving in with Abe has the perfect amount of ambiguity.
1. Megan Draper — Edging into dangerously unbelievable territory with her orchestrated takeover of the Heinz dinner, but pretty clear the writers don’t want us to ever underestimate this woman. Betty never held a candle.

Mad Men power rankings – Season 5, Episode 6: “Far Away Places”

2012 began with not less than a few delusions of grandeur from this (would-be) blog writer, the most urgent of which was a fantasy vision of starting several sports columns related not to favorite sports teams but favorite shows I follow.

Four months and one already-abortive Cubs season later, I find myself with exactly 0 posts of original content for the year. Well, readers, this post aims to rectify that by jumping straight into a (hopefully) recurring column in which we rank the top characters in Mad Men after each episode of its latest season.

We begin our rankings in medias res — after Episode 6 of Season 5, entitled “Far Away Places” — so if you haven’t watched the episode yet (and can somehow go on living with yourself), consider this your warning. Also, I’d be remiss to mention the Mad Men power rankings on Grantland which, while well-intentioned, seem a bit rambly to this humble reader. This list is not meant as a rip-off or a snarky reaction to that feature, though; truth be told my years of experience writing ridiculous lists and reading ESPN already had me making power rankings for everything well before Mad Men existed.

So without further delay, here are my top 10 Mad Men characters in ascending order as they exist in our April 22, 2012 version of 1966 (I’m going off of memory as ’66 being the year this season is set…this is where an intern fact checker would come in most handy):

10. Jane Sterling — Forces Roger to go to the LSD party. This episode was all about women (trying to) put their men in place, though I guess it ultimately backfires for Jane (see #4).
9. Pete Campbell and Lane Pryce (tie) – Pete did the sensible thing and laid low after being forcibly laid low by Lane’s fist last week. Smart move. Lane also avoided getting into another Season 5 scene that had you wondering, “What have I done to deserve this much Lane Pryce?”
8. Michael Ginsberg — I’m not really sure how to treat the revelation that he was born in a concentration camp. Is it a setup? A way he gets in the head of his coworkers, or a way Mad Men writers force compelling story? Only time will tell.
7. Sally Draper — Little to do in this episode, but I’m not putting anything past her. Kiernan Shipka could sell eating ice cream as a revelation.
6. Don Draper — Yeah, I know he actually kicks a door in to confront Megan, but somehow it still felt like Don was totally de-pantsed this episode. It’s really interesting that the writers have completely changed the behavior of their main character this season and there’s still enough going on that we feel like we’re watching the show called Mad Men.
5. Bert Cooper — Bert is like the wild card deus ex machina at this point; he’s had so little to do for these past few seasons that his confrontation with Don about slacking off near the end of this episode is a welcome bolt out of the blue. Here’s hoping he stirs up more trouble soon.
4. Roger Sterling — Not as many memorable lines this episode, but that LSD trip is just the right amount of weird. Also, you really feel for him when he asks Don to go out on the town like old times and Don immediately wants his wife to be a part of it.
3. Peggy Olson — Yeah, Peggy paid for going postal in her Heinz pitch but it was a well-deserved release; and her surreal moment in the movie theater actually brought her closer to her boyfriend which is, you know, cool and certainly not condoning anything on my part.
2. Megan Draper — Going into this season one of the biggest questions was how the writing staff would handle this character given all the pitfalls of Betty, but overall I think they’ve done a pretty decent job of transcending trophy wife humdrum-ness: Megan’s shown depth in both wanting a career and refusing to bend to Don’s every wish.
1. Matt Weiner — It’s been so long since this show was on the air that I’d totally forgotten what astounded me about watching Season 4 live: somehow it really feels like we are living in each moment (of the historical past!) with these characters. Anything can happen to anyone at any time, and Episode 6 just proves it again: Roger and Jane breaking up through an LSD trip, Megan suddenly going postal on Don while eating ice cream, the debatable use of Rashomon structure, even the show’s continued use of murderously abrupt act breaks. Weiner’s the goddamn madman to rule them all, and still not a moment feels contrived as it’s happening.

New Yorker Stories: In the South by Salman Rushdie

Despite its lackluster title, Salman Rushdie’s In the South ends up being a satisfying little exercise with enough frills to keep me interested. The story centers around two senescent Indian neighbors who have little to do except wait around for the end together, having outlasted most of their immediate family members. Their sobriquets are Junior and Senior because they share the same last name, and while their relationship isn’t overtly affectionate they’ve come to rely upon each other as relevant signposts on the final leg of their journey. The language isn’t quite as lyrical as his best stuff from East, West (one of my favorites), but there’s some good metaphor dealing with shadows and a well-drawn scene with the two men guiding each other to the post office to collect their pension checks.

True to form, Rushdie is quick to poke fun at himself before coming across too purple or enamored of himself, and so one character’s interesting conceit of a “mortal soul” is immediately dismissed by the other as pure tommyrot. Yeah, I just found that word by thesaurusing “rubbish.” And yeah, I just used thesaurus as a verb. What are you gonna do about it?

You can check out the story for yourself here.

New Yorker stories: The Headstrong Historian

So I’m perusing the fiction page on the New Yorker website looking for my next story to read when I realize that T. Coraghessan Boyle has not one, not two, but three of the most recent 25 stories listed.  Really, New Yorker?  Really???  Not only do you give John Updike two stories, but Coraghessan gets THREE?  This is almost worse than discovering Joyce Carol Oates has suddenly put out another novel, as she’s so prone to doing.  I think I’ve been down this rant before so I’ll keep it short — I don’t actually have anything against Coraghessan, I just really wish the New Yorker would spread it around a little bit more.

Thus I resolutely plunged into The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a writer who, though not unsuccessful (so Wikipedia tells me) isn’t usually entitled to five New Yorker stories a year.  The result was pretty inspiring: Adichie has crafted a nice family history of a Nigerian woman named Nwamgba who first lives through her husband, then through her Anglicized son, then finally through a granddaughter who manages to grow up and recover Nwamgba’s lost culture long after she’s gone in the span of a few breathtaking sentences.  It’s a refreshing peak into another culture that doesn’t feel exoticized or forced.

Consider this

30 Rock episodes are broken into one teaser and three acts.

Lost episodes are broken into one teaser and five acts.

Battlestar episodes are broken into one teaser and four acts.

Heroes episodes are broken into one teaser and five acts.

HBO has no commercial breaks.

There are twelve cylon models.

New Yorker Stories: “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro

All I can say is WOW – leave it to a frakkin’ legend like Alice Munro to screw my head back on about New Yorker fiction. If reading the weekly New Yorker story is like a dubious session of panning for gold, reading Free Radicals by Alice Munro is like finding a big fat nugget of the good stuff in your pan. She sets up this story with such straightforward innocence it totally had me fooled, though I really should have known better. I love how it builds a sort of quiet foreboding in the early paragraphs, even though you’re not really sure what to suspect. It’s got that rustic gothic mood most recently felt in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and before you realize it the plot’s already turned on you. Several times at that. And while the ending might feel one turn too frivolous, this is brilliant stuff. I’m not even gonna summarize, you should just read it now. And I really need to be reading more Munro.

New Yorker Stories: “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley

I’m sure expectations for some sort of profound revelation are building with each passing day, but for now I’d just like to try and get back into an executional groove with this blog so I’m going to start out with one of our recurring features and a promise to make it more recurring than history has thus far indicated.

Friendly Fire by Tessa Hadley is the first New Yorker story I’ve read in several months, and while it went remarkably quickly and had some charming details, there’s simply no plot to speak of – the main character is a middle-aged woman named Shelley who’s earning extra money by doing some work for her friend Pam’s cleaning business. The two clean a warehouse in the middle of the night. The end. Shelley also has a son in the British army stationed in Afghanistan, which is an interesting wrinkle given our (understandable) preoccupation with American soldiers overseas but the perspective ends up being under-utilized. While visiting Karan in New York last summer I vaguely remember having met a literary girl who cited Tessa Hadley as a favorite author, and there are indeed some nicely observed moments here – the soldier son now kisses his mother goodbye “as if he were putting her aside, kindly but firmly” – but there just isn’t enough here to hang a hat on.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go BNever Let Me Go A

We do book reviews too now! Sweet!!! So there were two main thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:

  1. It really is unfair how nearly every review of this book had to give away the secret to the story (they’re clones!) – this unspeakably lame review from The Village Voice pretty much gives up the whole plot in its opening line. I understand that you can still enjoy the book once you’ve been tipped off and the fools in marketing needed a hook, but I still lament the fact that because I’d accidentally read a review when the book first came out I wasn’t able to have the discovery process all to myself.
  2. I wish I’d read The Remains of the Day first. I’m betting the narrators of both of these novels are pretty similar, and though Remains won the Booker prize I worry that if I go and read it now my experience with Never Let Me Go will ruin some of its freshness.

Overall, I admire Ishiguro for tackling such a sci-fi topic yet grounding it in a small, meticulous world. The voice of his female narrator (Kathy) is impressively authentic, though not being female I suppose I’m not fully qualified to judge. Ironically, that voice is why I both admired and felt distanced from the book – Kathy’s a well-drawn character, or at least her thoughts are; but those thoughts often seem cloying and small-minded, to the point where it’s hard to sympathize. Ruth (Kathy’s best friend and the other main female character in the book) is also drawn remarkably well, but demonstrates such selfish and manipulative qualities that again it’s hard to enjoy spending time with her.

What I enjoyed most was the simple yet quietly unnerving atmosphere the novel is set in. We realize we’re in a slightly parallel universe, with a few select sci-fi elements thrown in, but Ishiguro really does very little in the way of explaining how it all came to be – he uses that mystery and unsettling quality to craft a world where anything seems possible, yet the focus is always on his characters and how they’re immediately feeling.

Lastly, I thought I should just note that the paperback copy I read had the first cover shown above. When I’d finished the book and started reading reviews, though, I discovered that the original hardcover looked like the second picture, which I prefer a lot more – the doll-face on the paperback is certainly creepy, but I think the original does a better job of alluding to that entire creepy, isolated atmosphere.