Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Going to be Quite a Summer

Good grief, it's nearly the last week of April already. As previously announced, this blog is going on hiatus for most of the summer while I take care of Real Life Business, so I'm not going to be around for the bulk of the summer blockbuster season. I'm a little sad about that, because this is definitely going to be an interesting one. 2014 has its share of sequels and franchise movies, but it can also be viewed as the calm before the storm that will be the summers of 2015 and 2016, when the really big franchise showdowns are scheduled. This summer actually features a lot of original projects and a fair amount of lower budgeted titles that could become potential sleepers.

These are the kinds of conditions that could lead to a bust at the box office, where multiple would-be tentpole projects fail one after another. More likely we're going to see the trends from 2012 and 2013 continue, where we get a mix of big hits and big underperformers. 2014 has had one major flop already, the Wally Pfister directed "Transcendence," with Johnny Depp, which doesn't bode well for all the other original science-fiction movies coming our way soon. Most of the expected heavy hitters are frontloaded in May, as usual, but there are also some major franchise films scattered throughout the summer that should keep the momentum going through mid-August. Watch out for last year's bout of mid-summer blockbuster fatigue making a comeback though.

Most of the box office winners are easy to guess. I expect to see the new "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Transformers," and "How to Train Your Dragon" films at the top of the list. "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be up there too, because of its Marvel pedigree. Though it's been dismissed sight unseen by so many, I think "Teenage Mutant Ninja" stands a good shot at being a hit because the offerings for kids are pretty paltry this year. The absence of a PIXAR feature is noticeable. As a result, the "Planes" sequel is probably going to make a good chunk of change too. Smaller franchise films like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Expendables 3," "22 Jump Street," and "The Purge: Anarchy" should also at least turn a profit. The only sequel I think has iffier prospects is the long-delayed "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," which is coming in late August, and nearly ten years after the original. Still, the "300" sequel didn't do too badly, did it?

The big question marks are the star-driven vehicles and original projects. Will people show up to see Angelina Jolie play "Maleficent"? Or Melissa McCarthy in "Tammy"? What about Tom Cruise in "Edge of Tomorrow? Adam Sandler's new comedy "Blended" seems like a sure bet, but what about Duane Johnson in "Hercules"? Or Scarlett Johanssen in "Lucy"? If that one does well, does that increase the chances of a Black Widow movie? Does Godzilla still have enough notoriety and cultural cachet to headline his own movie? Does the underperformance of similar kaiju movie "Pacific Rim" last year mean anything? Will pitting Seth Rogen against Zac Efron sell people on "Neighbors"? Is putting Seth McFarland in western spoof "A Million Ways to Die in the West" a good idea? How about the pairing of Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz for "Sex Tape"? And what are we supposed to make of Channing Tatum in elf ears for the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending"?

And then there are the smaller films. There seem to be a lot of non-traditional counterprogramming this year for older and less blockbuster-inclined audiences. Right smack in the middle of May we're getting Jon Favreau's foodie feel-good comedy "Chef," and Disney sports biopic "Million Dollar Arm." Fox is putting out a low-budget romantic drama "The Fault in Our Stars," starring Shailene Woodley in June. Then comes Clint Eastwood's screen adaptation of the "Jersey Boys" musical on the same day as "Think Like a Man Too." In August, filling the traditional feel-good picture for older women berth, Disney has "The Hundred-Foot Journey" starring Helen Mirren. And of course there are a slew of art house pictures to look forward to, including Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" and Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."

I don't have any particular stake in any of these movies doing well, though I'm looking forward to several. What I'd really like to see is the big franchise films not entirely dominate the top spots this year. I'd love to see any of the smaller films break out, or even one of the star or director driven projects. Ideally, there should be more of a balance among all these different types of films, which would help to encourage more variety at the box office. Otherwise, there aren't going to be many more summers as potentially interesting as this one in the future.
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Monday, April 21, 2014

Year Five of "Community"

I never get tired of writing about this show, and as we say goodbye to the fifth season, the big question is, did Dan Harmon and the other creators get away with it? Did they manage to course-correct after that disastrous fourth season and bring back the show that its fans wanted? I'm willing to say yes. Clearly year five was better than year four, and I'd even go as far as saying that it was better than a lot of the third season, when Dan Harmon started getting a little too carried away with the metatextual madness. And yet, despite gaining some vital ground, there are some big problems with Season Five.

The season started out well enough, with Jeff becoming the newest Greendale educator and the whole gang reuniting as the Save Greendale Committee. I thought Troy and Pierce's departures were handled about as well as they possibly could have been, and that the amped up part for John Oliver's Professor Ian Duncan and the introduction of Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks, were pretty good at helping to fill the void. However, neither are quite fleshed out well enough yet to really be replacements. But then, sadly, nothing was really done with Jeff's new position. We never saw him in a classroom again after the first time and his status as a teacher was never explored at all. More time was devoted to Abed getting a girlfriend and even Hickey's cartooning efforts.

I suspect the limited number of episodes was probably responsible for this. The truncated thirteen episode season meant that there wasn't a lot of space to devote to character development in general. What bits and pieces that we did get just didn't cohere as well as they have in the past. The two-parter ending that explored the possibility of Greendale ceasing to exist felt wholly unconnected to anything that had been set up earlier in the season. Character arcs were set up that didn't really go anywhere, and others have been quietly dropped. At least all the characters feel like themselves again, with the exception of the reformed Jeff, who I'm still not sure about. Annie and Abed benefited the most from this, and Chang has been thankfully de-emphasized. Alas, Britta was sorely underused.

Individual episodes hit some impressive bullseyes. I've already talked about the farewell to Troy in "Geothermal Escapism," that turned the whole school into a post-apocalypse spoof thanks to a game of "The Floor is Lava." However, my favorite of the crazy theme episodes this year was definitely "App Development and Condiments," where a new social netwoking app known as MeowMeowBeenz is tested on the campus, leading to Greendale becoming a '70s sci-fi dystopia spoof with lots of references to "Logan's Run," and Starburns in Sean Connery's outfit from "Zardoz." There was also the entirely animated "G.I. Jeff," that took on Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials, plus another round of Dungeons and Dragons.

And while they're a little nuttier than they used to be, the regular school life episodes like "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" and "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" also did a good job of establishing new group dynamics and making use of the campus setting. I could easily see "Community" continuing in this vein for another season or two, improving on the groundwork that was laid this year. However, like many other reviewers have pointed out, I'm also starting to feel like "Community" has run its course. This year spent so much time getting us back to the old "Community," and then trying to maintain the status quo that it didn't do enough to push forward into new territory. There's a clear sense of the writers trying to patch too many gaps at once, reacting to format changes by doubling down on the old formulas instead of trying to find new ones.

The goal of six seasons and a movie is in sight, and considering NBC's fortunes, there's a good chance we'll get another thirteen episodes next year. However, all the drama and the cast changes and the shuffled creatives have taken their toll on the show, and will probably continue to. Season Five had some similar problems with Season Four, ironically, which is that it was trying too hard to backpedal to the point where the show was at its best. I'll continue to watch it weekly as long as they keep running it, but my enthusiasm for "Community" is starting to go south. I'm having a hard time seeing where the creators can take things from here, with most of the big arcs from prior seasons wrapped up and the new ones sputtering as they try to get off the ground.

There have been more than a few episodes in the last batch that I loved, but I'm starting to think that it might have been better for everyone involved if the show had just wrapped up after three strong seasons and didn't try to push its luck.
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Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Favorite George Cukor Film

It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. And it's especially rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.

My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.

What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.

And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.

This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.

Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.

George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Yes We Cannes

I can’t help staring at the poster for this year’s international Cannes Film Festival. There’s young Marcello Mastroianni, from Federico Fellini's “8½,” staring out at us from over his sunglasses, still an unquestionable icon of cinema.

And so is the festival itself, which over the years has become the most high profile and most prestigious of the international film festivals, and its prize, the Palme d’Or, one of the most respected. Past winners have included “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Tree of Life,” chosen by juries of respected filmmakers and artists. The list of Palme d’Or recipients looks like a survey of the most influential directors of the past six decades. Stephen Spielberg presided over last year’s jury, which gave the top prize to “Blue is the Warmest Color.” And though there are the usual controversies and politicking, the festival retains a sterling reputation and remains an important yearly showcase for international cinema.

And that’s why any pretentious film lover worth their salt, including yours truly, gets so excited about the lineup of premieres every year. Last year’s lineup of films in competition included “Nebraska,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Behind the Candelabra,” and Foreign Language Oscar winner “The Great Beauty.” It usually takes months and months for these films to make their way Stateside, and there are a couple on last year’s list like James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” that are only reaching theaters this spring. Some titles, of course, all but vanish into obscurity as soon as they’re done screening. Still, the early reviews and reactions are a great preview of what’s in store for audiences, especially since most of the competing films are from well known, high profile directors.

Every year you hear the speculation over which films will be having premieres at Cannes. This year there the possibility of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” being in the mix got a lot of people worked up. It didn’t show, most likely still in post-production, but there are a lot of other titles to get excited about. We’ll be getting new movies from the Dardennes brothers, who have already won the Palme d’Or twice, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, Michel Hazanavicius, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Jean-Luc Godard, who is bringing his first 3D feature. Of particular note to American film fans is Bennett Miller’s delayed “Foxcatcher,” and the Tommy Lee Jones western, “The Homesman.” Few remember Jones is a director, but this is his third theatrical feature.

Films that aren’t part of the main competition still benefit from participating at Cannes. The Un Certain Regard competition was created in 1998, a parallel to the main awards for “original and different” films. It’s already generated its share of major international classics, including past winners “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Dogtooth.” Last year’s contenders included two of the other Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees, “Omar” and “The Missing Piece,” and the indie darling “Fruitvale Station.” This year, Un Certain Regard will include a version of Ned Benson’s “Eleanor Rigby” double-film, and the directing debut of Ryan Gosling. And screening out of competition entirely are the new Zhang Yimou film “Coming Home” and the world premiere of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The latter film may seem out of place, but it’s become the norm for a few Hollywood blockbusters to premiere at Cannes every year.

There’s no question that many of these films are the ones we’ll be talking about when awards season rolls around again. Though Cannes and the Oscars very rarely see eye to eye, the festival’s influence is inescapable. Films that make a major splash at Cannes or one of the other major festivals are guaranteed a certain amount of attention by the art house crowd, so they inevitably become part of the awards conversations. Because Cannes is invitation only, and extremely selective, it’s much harder to influence their decisions through marketing or other tactics, which gives the results a much greater sense of legitimacy. Though I’ve never seen a film at Cannes, there are several films I know I’ve seen largely because of Cannes.

This year I’m looking forward to several titles. Ken Loach’s last film, “Jimmy’s Hall,” will be part of the competition. Wim Wenders’ latest documentary will be in Un Certain Regard. And I love finding out about films I had no idea existed - for instance, one of the out of competition screenings will be for the Danish film “The Salvation,” a western from a couple of Dogme 95 alumni that stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It’ll probably be a year before I get to see it, but I know to watch out for it now. And sometimes, that’s the most important part of being a movie fan.
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Prisoners" and "Enemy"

I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Go "Joe"

"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What I Want From the Last Season of "Mad Men"

It feels a little disingenuous to be writing up this post now, because "Mad Men" isn't going to be premiering its last batch of episodes until next spring, thanks to this business of splitting Season 7 into two chunks of seven episodes apiece. But if AMC can cheat, so can I. The season premiere aired last Sunday, and the exiled Don Draper is facing 1969 and the end of the '60s. What do I want to see happen to him and the rest of the ad execs in this final year? I did a "what if" post looking at possibilities and predictions last year, but this time around I want to get more concrete.

"Mad Men" has been all about examining and poking holes in the iconic '60s image of masculinity personified by Don Draper in the early seasons. From the start he's always been a facade, and over the course of the last six seasons that facade has been slowly chipped away bit by bit until we find it in a state of total disrepair at the start of the seventh. Don is left feeding ideas to Freddy Rumsen and resisting the lure of Neve Campbell, having been burned too many times by previous affairs. The episode's final, haunting image finds him alone, unable to sleep. At the same time the show also tackles other familiar figures like the ascendant working woman, in this case Peggy Olsen. For all of Peggy's talents and all her drive, we find her in a place not much better off than Don, her work compromised and her personal life all but nonexistent.

This isn't where I want these two to end up. Oh, I'm not rooting for some kind of fairy tale ending where they pair up romantically and go off to found their own advertising firm of Whitman and Olsen, but I do want them to both survive the decade and make it to a place where they're prepared to tackle the next one. The internet has been full of speculation that Don is going to die in the final episode, but I'd be much happier with a metamorphosis, from Draper back to Whitman, perhaps, or from Draper into someone new. Peggy, I suspect will either claw her way to the top or simply walk away from Sterling Cooper and the world of the mad men in the end. Both could be read as victories, and I'd be happy to see either outcome.

Betty and Sally didn't appear in the premiere. Though her part in the show has been drastically reduced, I still identify with and root for Betty. I doubt that there's more narrative space left to really explore her world, but the Betty and Sally relationship deserves some more attention. I hope these two can figure out to connect with each other, or at least reach some kind of mutual understanding, now that Sally has become disillusioned with her father. From their last encounter, Betty may still have some maturing to do, but she's grown up enough to get over Don. I'd like Sally to be able to do the same, maybe mirroring the scene with Roger and his daughter next week.

Speaking of Roger, I honestly don't see much hope for his redemption at this point, so I can only hope that his decline continues to be spectacular. The possibility of Joan becoming a real wheeler-dealer at the firm was raised this week, however, and suddenly I want her to be a successful account woman very badly. Pete Campbell showed up amusingly tan and happy, and though the little rat has caused a lot of grief over the years, I've grown fond enough of him that I hope he finds a way to stay happy and put all the bitterness behind him - though I know he probably won't. At the same time, I want something really nasty to happen to Teddy Chaough.

Among the minor characters, I'm still rooting for Ken and Ginsburg to make it out of Sterling Cooper with some dignity intact. And then there are all the other supporting characters who were left by the wayside as the show rolled on. I love that we got to see glimpses of what happened to Midge and more amusingly, to Paul. But whatever happened to Sal? And Abe? Does Harry Crane get any more time this year? And what of Bob Benson and the man named Duck?

Finally, 1969 will bring the Apollo 11 moon landing, My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family murders. And even if Megan Draper isn't supposed to be a analog of Sharon Tate, I still stand by my original assessment that she's not going to be a part of Don's world for much longer. I think the relationship has run its course, and I'd rather see it over sooner rather than later.
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