One thing that’s become even clearer than usual about Mad Men this season is how much of a soundstage-based show it is. Its claustrophobic, indoor nature is built into the material, of course; it’s about people in isolation from everyone around them, and offices where the outside world exists only in a tangential way (as a source of trends, or a place full of sales targets). Its emphasis on indoor filming is also necessitated by the period setting, since it’s easier to get the period right on a soundstage than to go outside and fix up New York to look like New York in the ’60s. And finally, it mostly stays inside because it’s easier to keep secrets there. Any time the show ventures on location – like the brief trip to Hawaii for the season premiere – something instantly leaks out. In the studio, only the regular crew can see what’s going on, and Matt Weiner doesn’t have to fear spoilers.
Since outdoor or location shooting is not always necessary, and sometimes doesn’t look any more convincing than a soundstage or backlot (particularly when every piece of outdoor shooting is usually supplemented with CGI anyway), and since Mad Men is not about the city per se, this isn’t usually a problem. It arguably was a problem in last night’s episode, about the Martin Luther King assassination and the awkward reactions of the regular characters. (The first rule of TV is that no one can be interested in anything without relating it to their personal lives, so Don worries about how he’s been left unable to feel what he’s supposed to feel about anything; Pete thinks of it in terms of his marital problems, and so on.) The episode is supposed to partake of the feeling of dread that gripped America at the time: not just grief over the MLK shooting, but fear that an open war would begin.
It’s a good dramatic subject, because the characters are afraid but can’t articulate what they’re afraid of, for various reasons (fear of looking insentitive, fear of looking bigoted, or just a general lack of certainty about how to separate real worries from phony ones). And that subtext of fear did play out in some of the scenes. The idea that the white characters are fearful, and unsure of how much they have a right to say as white people, underlies much of the episode, and it’s a good story idea that avoids most of the easy clichés about the ’60s.
But because there’s so little of a world outside the soundstage walls, the context for that fear wasn’t terribly clear, except in the part where Don went to pick up his kids. Arguably it didn’t need to be, since the point was to demonstrate how the event played out for people living in these bubble worlds: the city doesn’t need to exist on the show because it doesn’t really exist for most of these people, except as a source of generalized anxiety. Still, the show’s insularity means that we almost have to imagine the drama that the episode is only half supplying. For a show that generally cuts itself off from the city, placing its characters in private rooms most of the time, it’s hard to create a sense of the tension that exists in the city at a crucial moment, and without a sense of where that tension comes from, the characters don’t always seem like they’re more nervous or awkward than they usually are.
On a side note, I find myself increasingly snapping to attention whenever Betty gets a plot in an episode. I know a lot of people don’t like her (and famously, some recaps have more contempt for her than much more contemptible characters), and she’s often compared unfavourably to fan-favourite Peggy. But Peggy’s stories can seem a little lacking in subtlety sometimes. Probably because at the moment she gets a lot of the advertising storylines, and those require a lot of on-the-nose discussion of issues and easy symbolism. Betty, the bottled-up, ambiguous character, the one who’s angry about what she sees as her wasted opportunities, is in some ways a more intriguing character because she can be unpleasant. And her scenes have been some of the most interesting this season; like Don, she created a persona for herself to fit the ideal of what people were supposed to be in the ’50s and early ’60s. Now that that era is over, neither of them know what they’re supposed to be, but Betty actively wants to reinvent herself, even if it consists only of going from a light-haired advertising man’s wife to a dark-haired politician’s wife.