Friday, 26 July 2013

Stay out of my territory: Breaking Bad Season 2 Part 2

We conclude our examination of Breaking Bad Season 2, where things went from bad to outright depressing. It's at home with Heisenberg time as Walt's cancer goes into remission and he has to make a choice while Jesse begins a relationship that will almost certainly end happily. So tune in for Walt's first big step towards becoming the monster that hopefully gets its comeuppance on August 11.

Dexter Season 8, Episode 4 - "Scar Tissue" Review

As I finished the tackily titled 4th episode of Dexter, Scar Tissue, I had the bad taste in my mouth that suggested I had watched a bad episode of Dexter. However I soon realized that I had misjudged; this was an utter train wreck of an episode. A mixture of poor writing, lack of momentum, uneven plotting, repetitive character beats, tedious subplots and outright stupidity led to an atrocious episode that made me reassess my previously enthusiastic reception to the earlier developments. Every time Dexter goes so wrong like this I think about what had seemed previously quite palatable and realize that it’s nothing good enough to ward off the bad vibes given by this dross.

 If this episode has any focus it’s on the new therapy sessions between Dr. Vogel and Dexter. This leads to a series of character explorations that fluctuate between clumsily didactic and bizarrely inconsistent. The show feels incapable of call Dexter out on his shit, we know he’s a bad guy but there’s barely any culpability laid at his feet for corrupting Deb and then tactlessly refusing to retreat from her life. Vogel’s insistence that Deb may never want him back in her life is treated as an insidious ploy to keep brother and sister apart but if Dexter or the writers had any sense of perspective they would realise that it is in no one’s interest for the two to remain in touch. Deb is framed as a shrill bitch for not wanting her brother in her life even though this is the reaction that pretty much every other person would have. We also get further exploration of what Deb means to Dexter and by further I mean inelegant dialogue by Vogel explicitly restating what was nicely placed in the subtext of last week. But this was probably the best part of the episode because it was merely redundant; the rest did damage to a so-far on track season.

So we get some potential resolution to the brain surgeon plotline and I’m not quite sure if the show is using this week’s antagonist as a red herring or if it’s actually tipping its hand this early. Either way I’m not impressed. If this indeed a fake out then we’re wasting way too much time, in a not particularly compelling way, and if he actually is the brain surgeon then this was a woeful anti-climax. The way this little plot plays out is just downright inept after last week’s trite but competently entertaining foray into Dexter’s detective work. We’ve seen Dexter be careless before but things reach a whole new level of ridiculousness when he breaks into the suspect's house, doesn’t notice the fake door or security cameras and then proceeds to have a detailed and revealing conversation with Vogel on fucking loudspeaker! We then get to the killer’s completely original kill-basement that in no way resembles one of the other numerous lairs throughout the season and would perhaps be threatening if it wasn’t lit like a Joel Schumacher Batman film. Dexter proceeds to rescue a conveniently blindfolded victim and manages to drop her off at the ER without anyone noticing. We then rush to a showdown where Dexter confronts the alleged Brain Surgeon at a nursing home where his sick father is hospitalized. The killer pulls the life support on his father to draw the attention of the nursing staff before jumping out the window while Dexter hides behind the door in a scene that is lifted straight out of 1930s slapstick. The climax is so rushed and ill-paced even when you leave aside the inherent silliness of what’s going on.

I’ve so-far refused to give any space to the secondary characters in the main review but their plots are so idiotic here and take up an uncomfortable amount of screen time that something needs to be said. Quinn passes his sergeant’s exam with the above-average score of 85 but the he is beaten by Angie Miller, who has a score of 88. Who is Angie Miller? Angie Miller is the black female detective who has been in the background of the show forever but barely ever gets any dialogue and as far as I can tell hasn’t even been named until now, she has about as much character development as Dexter’s furniture. Matthews insists that she’s given the promotion while Batista wants to hand it to Quinn. If you step back for a second you can see how utterly offensive and idiotic this scenario is. Quinn has proven himself time and time again to be inept and corrupt and Batista wants to promote him so he makes a better fuckbuddy for his sister. Leaving aside the gross nepotism on display, an incompetent white male getting promoted over a much better black female would be one of the easiest lawsuits in the world to win. If Batista’s judgement in this episode isn’t bad enough we are then treated to Quinn punching out a fellow detective for trash talking Deb. Batista’s advice? Sergeants can’t pull that shit except for that time where I did the exact same thing but that doesn’t count because I was already sergeant… What!? He smooths the situation over by bribing the other guys with a tab at his bar, the same bar that was funded my Russian drug money. What relatable characters!

And then in the most groan-inducing moment of them all we are introduced to Masuka’s sperm-donated offspring played by Becky from Friday Night Lights. It’s like someone writing a parody of a pointless Dexter subplot. Masuka’s reaction is that it can't be possible because she has curls, apparently not being aware of the influence of a second set of genes or the mind-blowing existence of hair-curling technology. To top it all off they even have the same fucking laugh. Seriously.

So the climax of the plot featuring the characters we actually care about (comparatively at least) takes place when Deb seemingly forgives Dexter and the two take a trip in the car. At the last moment she executes the most poorly planned murder suicide of all time and drives them into the water which somehow instantly knocks them out. She is rescued by a passerby who just disappears without any mention of saving the driver or calling the authorities. This is no impediment because Deb has miraculously regained consciousness after being exposed to the restorative powers of oxygen for a few seconds. She has a sudden change of heart and goes to rescue Dexter from his untimely watery grave. It was a conclusion that felt rushed, badly thought out and with no real consequences. A perfectly apt climax to a shit episode.

Other Stuff Worth Mentioning

  • This review is late because I couldn't bare face the ineptitude of this episode.
  • I pretty much just went ahead and described what happened because that's all you need to do to illustrate how this one gets it so wrong.
  • We also get a clumsily introduced love interest who needs laundry detergent and "hits it off" with Dexter. Are we really gonna do this?
  • Worst line of the night? After describing the all-purpose cable instalment offered by his suspect Dexter wonders if "murder is part of the package"?
  • Dexter supposedly broke things off with Vogel as well but I think I'm trying to minimize Charlotte Rampling's involvement in this crap in my mind.
Next Time On Dexter

  • Now Dexter's pissed at Deb. How wacky!
  • Vogel's in troubles, looks like they won't actually get rid of the high-profiled guest star. What a surprise.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Layered... Like Nachos: Breaking Bad Season 2 Part 1

Continuing our journey through meth-addled Albuquerque we dive into the first half of Season 2, just before shit gets really real. Although shits pretty real in these episodes. So have a listen as we gear up for the final eight episodes where the real shit is bound to get realer then real... bitch.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Dexter Season 8, Episode 3 - "What's Eating Dexter Morgan?"

I am perfect. But only at one thing.

While watching this episode of Dexter I thought back to what initially made me watch the show before it settled into being merely a sense of conflicted obligation. I settled on two main points of attraction. The first was seeing the twisted inversion of a crime procedural, where the hero operated in the shadows like the villain would and every perverse psychological quirk was given centre stage. The second was the question of whether there was any worth to a psychopath, someone who is admitted and designated as being entirely devoid of emotion. The anti-hero cable drama has become a certifiable genre at this stage but Dexter, even at its lowest moments, has stood out by having a protagonist whose inhumanity wasn't just a question but merely a given. What’s Eating Dexter Morgan? zeroed in on those two main draws that had largely come out of focus in recent years and delivered one of the most satisfying episodes in a long time.

So once again we have an episode centred around Deb and her long, hard descent into guilt-fuelled alcoholism. I've said it every week but Jennifer Carpenter continues to nail her performance here. When she has to be completely hammered she doesn't just fall back on clichéd behaviour but instead creates an intoxicated state that is downright tragic. When she’s threatened with a DUI she has no one to turn to but the ever-uncharismatic Joey Quinn and when he sees her at her lowest he tells Dexter that some sort of intervention is required. The thought of dragging Quinn into this plotline made me extremely worried as he has the tendency to turn every plot he touches into pure superfluousness but he’s actually used in a mostly sensible fashion here (mostly, but more on that later). He has to act as a line of communication between Deb and Dexter, whose busy with his latest serial killer nemesis. But Deb’s spiral is becoming too much to ignore so Dexter has to intervene but it takes Dr. Vogel to ask the question that Dexter and the show have been shying away from for so long. Why?

Indeed it’s always been hazy as to why exactly Dexter feels so bound to Deb the way he is. In a show where the protagonist narrates every corner of his psychological make-up the nature of this relationship has remained refreshingly complex, probably because Dexter isn’t exactly sure why he cares so much himself. Why did Dexter reject his brother when Deb was on his table way back in Season 1, besides some vague notions of family duty? Dr. Vogel doesn’t answer that question, and it’s probably for the best that a straightforward one isn’t given, but she does get him questioning the very nature of their relationship, rather than just letting it being accepted at face value.

There’s always been a sense that Deb is Dexter’s morality pet, an accessory that lets him feel somewhat human. When Vogel asks him what it is that he likes about her, because a psychopath can’t possess unconditional love, he mentions how he simply likes to drink beer, eat steaks and shoot the shit with her, stopping short of saying that he likes her making him feel like a human being. We’ve seen before how this relationship will immediately shift to second place when it interferes with his killing habits and now its taken an even more selfish and sinister angle. Dexter doesn’t just need to save Deb for her sake, she’s also a liability now and its becoming increasingly clear that his need to intervene is motivated mostly out of self-preservation. This all comes to a head in the climax of this episode which could have been a disaster but manages to be distinctly powerful. Deb goes to the station, in a state of drunkenness that is downright scary, and tries to confess her involvement in LaGuerta’s death. This scene was so well played by Carpenter that I began to grind my teeth when the show began to twist her words and Quinn’s reaction to make sure that the secret stayed buried for longer, a typical Dexter spinning of wheels. But what saved it was how Dexter intervened, cleverly using Vogel to discredit Deb. Dexter had been good so far at combining his care for Deborah with his need for preservation but in that last moment he broke the ultimate taboo and stuck a needle in her neck. Biney, Miguel Prado, Trinity, they all got that infamous signature tranquillizer but to see it used on Deb, even for non-fatal purposes, was chilling. After Dexter underlines his harsh behaviour by handcuffing Deb to her couch for some involuntary therapy he has a moment of self-realization that he can never be the big brother he says he is. We’ve had this kind of sentiment so many times before but it really feels like Dexter is actually beyond saving now.

Which leads to the other part of this episode, the one thing Dexter is good at. He’s tasked with tracking down all of Vogel’s old patients and gets to slip into Dark Avenger mode as he stalks a potential killer. This whole sub-plot was pretty much inconsequential but I actually really liked it. It felt like the Dexter of old, the hunt for the next big bad guy and when it’s revealed that the fitness instructor is actually a gourmet cannibal (nice touch) the show's reliable sense of perversion came back to give the episode a bit of colour. It was all very slight and merely served to demonstrate what Dexter’s up to and give a climax to his realisation about his true nature but it all felt very comfortably familiar, in a good way.

 What’s Eating Dexter Morgan? is a slow episode, but not the pointless wheel spinning that the show has fallen into lately. It’s a rich character study that we rarely get to see, one that explores the central characters without just having Dexter or Harry narrating it to the audience. This show has a tendency to slip between complete inertia and rushing through plot so its nice to see a balance being struck. I feel like we moved to the next stage in the story this week, but we got there with some depth and some stakes. And those two things have been missing from Dexter for an extremely long time.

Some other stuff worth mentioning

  • So we continue on the almost self-parodying sub-plot of Quinn doing his Sergeant Exam. The scene in the Batista house almost felt like some misguided revival of Hill St Blues.
  • Re: the opening scene. How much mileage is this show going to get out of things that look like blood but are actually innocent?
  • Gotta love the famous Friendzone app. On the subject of phones, notice how they're just using iPhones now instead of those really strange generic ones from days prior.
  • Is the shooting video that Dexter shows Deb the one from Season 6 (or 5, or 7, I forget) because if so that's some nice continuity.
  • I actually really don't mind the P.I. Firm, probably because its a nice change from Miami Metro. Also what's with the boss and all those liquids. Something sinister perhaps?
Next time on Dexter
  • So Vogel's going to guilt trip Deb and generally fuck things up. Sounds good!
  • Still no sign of Hannah McKay. Probably for the best.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Dexter Season 8 Episode 2 - "Every Silver Lining" Review

I’ve been picturing the final season of Dexter for a while now and I always imagined that the various contrivances that keep the titular killer’s secret hidden would be blown away as he’s on the run then captured, tried and executed; something along those lines. It looks like that’s not what the writers’ are going for so instead we get a more traditional full-circle arc about Dexter’s origins with the newly-introduced female-Harry Dr. Vogel. Is it the ending we’ve all been dying to see? No, but it’s something and as Dexter further outlines its plans for the final season I’m beginning get on board, however tentatively.

So we begin the episode with a recording of Harry meeting with Vogel, confiding his fears about what Dexter may be and from there we learn that she was the architect of the code that has guided the show’s action from the beginning. It’s the sort of convenient retcon that television relies on all too often but I don’t find it particularly offensive here. It makes sense that Harry, being just a cop, would rely on professional advice to devise such a subversive moral code and after 7 seasons of stand-in fathers, brothers, lovers and even spiritual guides (the less said the better) it’s amazing the show has only now decided to tap into the bountiful storytelling well that is the surrogate mother. Laura Moser was always just a narrative device and Harry’s wife contributed fuck all to the story so the show gets some credit for introducing someone to fill the one void in Dexter that hasn’t really been explored. Apart from being a mother figure, Vogel is also given the predictable task of asking whether Dexter is truly psychopath, and if so is there any worth to him? The show has fluttered around this question pretty much every year but seeing as it comes up with a different, entirely inconsistent, answer each year I’m happy to see it being explored again.

Vogel’s storyline is also revealed to tie in to the Brain Surgeon, the newest Miami serial killer, and Jesus they come around every year like Christmas. As messy as last season was I’m now glad that they didn’t build it around another serial killer as it is starting to look downright ridiculous. Those shots of the forensic team finding the first uniquely-dismembered corpse have become so familiar that I feel like the crew could shoot them in their sleep. But by tying the Brain Surgeon and Vogel together, the season is already feeling less annoyingly sprawling and more focused. The idea that the killer is an ex-patient is also appropriate for our final ‘big bad’ as it implies that this is Vogel’s failed experiment, the mishap that Harry’s code could have theoretically created. Sure, the ‘what if Dexter was worse’ role was comfortably filled by the Ice Truck Killer all those years ago but we’re eight seasons in for god’s sake and I’d rather see the show repeat the good stuff then pull pointless crap out of their ass. We’ve got a potentially great villain in the Brain Surgeon, maybe they’ll even be a familiar face, and with Vogel whispering morally ambiguous encouragements in Dexter’s ear this could be a surprisingly satisfying character-driven finale.

We also check in with Deb who’s still feeling shit about herself and looking tired and dehydrated (her boss even gives her some weird electrolyte concoction). Jennifer Carpenter is so good at this side of the character that it took me a while to realise I was actually watching “Gritty Ex Cop Deborah Morgan Tracks Down The Missing Jewels”. Of all the low-stakes meandering bullshit that Dexter has filled air-space with this has got to be up there. Thankfully it’s all resolved tonight with the revelation that it was indeed Deb who killed her pursuer. My fears have largely been laid to rest as it turns out that this two-episode plotline was really just a means to illustrate the shitty life Deb currently leads. As inelegant as it was, at least it was short. Hopefully Deb will now be dragged into the Vogel/Dexter story that is at the centre of the show now, and easily the most compelling material.

My apprehension about this season has let up a bit now as pieces are moved into place for the final push forward. As sprawling subplots die down and are merged together, Dexter seems to be finding a cohesive trajectory for its final year.

Some other stuff worth mentioning
• I cringed when Vogel said she was his ‘spiritual mother’. I really didn’t need it spelled out like that.
• I’m not even giving the Angel/Jamie/Quinn plotline a mention in the review it’s that fucking pointless and uninteresting.
• Having said that I was sort of amused by Quinn drinking the tea… sort of.
• How did Dexter escape the house when Batista and Quinn showed up, did I miss something?

On the next Dexter
• So Deb will indeed be drawn into the Dexter/Vogel relationship and as I said above, good!
• I’m not looking forward to Hannah Mckay, there’s not enough room in the narrative for her.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Looks Like We Have A New Kingpin - Breaking Bad Season 1

We take a look back at the first season of Breaking Bad, a time when Walt had hair, when your hatred of Skyler was sort of justified and when the writer's strike saved Jesse's life (sort of). Come back later for more Breaking Bad fun as we blaze through the series in time for the final eight episodes.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dexter: Season 8, Episode 1 - "A Beautiful Day" Review

It's the beginning of the end of Dexter... yay?

Once upon a time a new episode of Dexter would have filled me with excitement, no more so than after a yearlong hiatus. But as Season 8 begins, preceded by disappointment after disappointment, I can barely muster the enthusiasm to press play. I have to finish this show that has fallen down an endless chasm of bad writing choices because part of me still wants to know how it all ends for Miami’s favourite serial killer but another part of me thinks that would best be done through Wikipedia summaries. Yet I watch, hoping that things will improve, hoping that in its final season the show will go for broke and actually make the plot have some stakes again. I’m not hate-watching, I want Dexter to be good again but it needs to actually be strong, not just promising. It’s too late for promising, either grab me or go home. So how was the opening hour of Dexter’s final year?

A complete whimper it turns out. As expected, the season starts with a morosely narrated montage that catches us up to speed on what’s happened in the interim. The main change is that Deb has completely flung off the rails in a twist everyone saw coming a year ago. We get this information through clumsy exposition during Laguerta’s bench dedication and then get it hammered home even more gratuitously with the predictably superfluous conversation with Harry. So Deb’s working private security and has become dangerously attached to him, swilling beer at midday and snorting cocaine. Jennifer Carpenter gives a strong performance here but it all feels like low stakes for the aftermath of what was meant to be a bombshell finale. We start the final season with the ever looming threat of… Deb doing drugs? I understand the emotional importance this is meant to hold but it’s all rendered so prosaically that it’s hard to care.

Dexter’s reaction is also shambolically written. He seems incapable of understanding why Deb can’t move on but his sociopathy is played to the point of parody. I know Dexter can’t feel emotion but he’s demonstrated so many times that he’s capable of understanding Deb’s sense of honour that his tactlessness here just comes across as stupid. His final attempt to ‘rescue’ Deb climaxes with the realisation that she was right and he was wrong, to which myself, and I’m sure many viewers, replied ‘duh’! Not only is it painfully obvious it goes against the self-awareness that has been a key character trait from the beginning. It’s all brought home in a bizarre scene where Dexter almost kills an innocent man who cut him off while driving. It’s an unprecedented act of anger, in an episode that features a psychologist telling us that psychopaths don’t get angry. We’ve seen Dexter cold and unfeeling and we’ve seen him grow into a potentially empathetic man but this current state of flux is just bizarre. Any sense of character continuity has been abandoned.

Of course I have to mention the tedious subplots of the most unloved supporting cast on television. Batista has returned to the force in the wake of Laguerta’s death and is cluttering up his house with her old clothes. I appreciate the writers giving us the human cost of Laguerta’s death but once again I have to say: it’s the final fucking season, either make it count or don’t show it. There’s a tease that he may take up Laguerta’s vendetta against Deb and Dexter but it seems to be thrown away, and my god I hope so. Meanwhile Quinn is now screwing Jamie, super sister/nanny/sex-kitten, to which I let out a grown that was heard around the world. He’s been dragging the show down for four seasons now and she’s a plot contrivance, their children are destined to be vortex’s that suck in the credibility of any TV show they enter.

The main conflict this episode sets up is Dexter’s yearly obligatory obstacle, this time in the form of ‘psycopath whisperer’ Evelyn Vogal and she’s introduced with all the grace of Masuka’s attempts at consolation. When she enters the briefing room there is an immediate tension between her and Dexter as if she may be the one to reveal his secrets. It’s so poorly done because Dexter acts as if he’s read the scripts in advance; reacting to her like he’s hearing the ominous music that accompanies her. At the end of the day she’s just another law enforcement official that he chose to surround himself with every day, essentially Lundy 2.0, and until she actually starts poking around there’s no reason to believe she’ll ‘smell the psychopath’ on him during the limited interactions they would have. Of course it turns out that she knows who Dexter is and she knows about Harry’s code, which is a relief because we’ll be spared this pathetic attempt of mystery surrounding the character.

So we’ve got some good things to work with here, with an increasingly despairing Deb and someone who perhaps knows Dexter more intimately than anyone since Harry. But Dexter has given itself so many opportunities before and they never come to fruition. I don’t want promise anymore; I want the goods each and every week, other shows can do it so why can’t Dexter? There wasn’t enough strong writing or drama to carry this episode by itself so I remain extremely sceptical about the direction this season is heading in. When Dexter’s good, it will be good, plain and simple. Until then, I remain unconvinced.

Other stuff worth mentioning

  • The unusually long 'last season on' segment just seemed to bring home how much of a clusterfuck last season's end was, and that's leaving out the Russian Mafia subplot.
  • Harrison can talk now!
  • While it's hardly original for the show, I kind of liked the opening montage as it eerily illustrated Dexter's complete lack of self-awareness... even if that doesn't really make sense.
  • Looks like there's a hit-man on Deb's trail in a subplot that I'm sure will be 100% integral to the rest of the story.
  • Dexter's fathering in this episode was spectacularly bad, even by his standards.
  • Billy Walsh from Entourage appeared in this episode... there you go.
Next Episode On Dexter!
So it looks like Vogel will be a mother figure which is actually a nice twist to save for the final season. It actually left me a bit more hopeful than the episode itself but I've been led astray by preview's better than actual episodes before so I'm not taking it into account in my opinion of this hour of television. We also got the return of Hannah McKay (yawn) and some other stuff already shown in the season's trailer. Speaking of the preview, was it meant to be particularly long for the premier or is Showtime dedicating more of its airtime to ads that eclipse actual content?

Mad Men Season 6 Review

Full spoilers for the entirety of Mad Men Season 6 ahead:

There has always been a nastiness underpinning Mad Men ever since it began. The series, like so many post-Sopranos cable hits, was at its core about the exploits of a commanding asshole who you couldn't help but like. And also like the Sopranos, Matthew Weiner's training ground, the show became increasingly obsessed with destroying the façade of its main character that had so allured people from the beginning. In Season 4 we saw a thorough deconstruction of everything Don Draper had built himself up to be but the clever twist was that his supposed reawakening was founded on the same bullshit his original persona was. So with a new wife in tow he slept walk through most of Season 5, repressing the competitive womaniser of the past while the rest of SCDP imploded with their own dramas, before he was finally given the question that closed out last year and set up this one: Are you alone? With that question and the dramatic emphasis it was given we all expected a return to the Don of old but what we didn't know was how brutally strong that return would be. Six years in and Don had upgraded from anti-hero to villain protagonist, an asshole several steps above all his previous distasteful exploits. As Don became more unlikeable, less relevant and the Dick Whitman flashbacks started coming back it seemed like the show was approaching its endgame in the most obvious way possible, with the 60s moving on and leaving the bitter old Draper behind. But in the last hour of the season Weiner through a saving throw that retroactively improved the entire 13 episode batch. As it turned out the thorough ugliness that Don Draper had begun to exude was all leading up to the most tantalizing and unthinkable prospect for a final season: what if Don Draper can get better?

 The season began with the criminally underrated The Doorway (Episode 1) that saw Don reading Dante, playing surrogate father to the bride of a new army buddy, throwing up at a funeral, drunkenly pestering his doorman for an insider's perspective on death and switching lighters with a soldier, the last identifying object of Dick Whitman. Suffice to say, death and identity were on the show and Don's mind. Don seems to be at a crossroads but he's been at one so many time that its hard to really see anything different, indeed much of my reservations during the early parts of the season were about the show retreading old ground, particularly with Don's new mistress. The only difference was that the show seemed to acknowledge how repetitive these rhythms had become, with Roger pointing it out in the titular 'doorway' speech:

 What are the events in life? It’s like you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, Oh, what’s on the other side of the door? Then you open a few doors. Then you say, I think I want to go over that bridge this time, I’m tired of doors. Finally you go through one of these things, and you come out the other side, and you realize, that’s all there are, doors, and windows and bridges and gates and they all open the same way and they all close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change you, change your direction. But turns out that’s not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing, they’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, you stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you know where. 

 So Don's standing in the doorway, between his worst excesses and a sew sense of self-acceptance but according to Roger it's an arbitrary turning point. But television lives on these arbitrary turning points, moments that are given extra weight through framing more than anything particularly extraordinary about the events. This goes for 1968 as well, another doorway that has been seen and an unmatched turning point between normalcy and progression but 1968 was no more than a year where some stuff happened, like every other year, just another doorway that doesn't really change the direction of America's onward trajectory. So as SCDP, 1968 and Don stand in a doorway between small player and major company, normalcy and change and drunk repressed womaniser and a changed man respectively, its hard to say whether this means anything. Will the characters use these 'moments of change' to truly do something different? Well SCDP takes the plunge and pulls a huge merger while America gets scared and elect Richard Nixon and as for Don, who knows?

 But lets start with 1968, the year that we couldn't wait for the show to get its teeth into when it began but in its predictable eschewing of predictability Mad Men relegated most of the year's tumultuous events to the background, drawing more attention to its characters' striking ivory tower point of view and underlining Roger's nonchalance view on life and its false moments of change. The Vietnam War is merely a spectre in the distance that most of the characters agree is bad but dammit if they'll do anything about it. The first big 'event' episode, in the vein of the show's coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of JFK, is The Flood (Episode 5) which shows what happens when a bunch of rich white people are confronted by the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Everyone is suitably upset but there's a stiffness to their performances and indeed they are performances. Joan awkwardly hugs the lone black employee of SCDP and Pete gives an impassioned speech about how devastating the events are that is laughed at by his colleagues and most likely the audience. By the time RFK dies Don, and the show, can barely be bothered giving it the time of day, just another so-called tragedy piling up on top of another. The relationship between Mad Men's world and the social revolution that has been falsely historicized by many was best encapsulated by the frequently hilarious collapse of Peggy and her more counter cultural boyfriend Abe's relationship. She likes the idea of him as subversive figure in her life but seems to have little affection for him as a person while he seems besotted with her but cannot live with her ideals, which eventually ends their relationship. Mad Men has come along way with how it depicts the past. When the show began it could often be gratuitous in how it winked at the audience about the dated behaviour on screen and didactically hammered home how out of touch Madison Ave. was with the incoming 'change'. Now a more subtle approach has been given as the politics of SCDP are no longer wrong just unsettlingly phony. The insulating effect of those New York skyscrapers has never been more apparent and when Don brings up the war amongst GM execs, now that it has finally effected him personally, the chilly reaction is as if someone has smashed a window.

While last season felt like an ensemble piece more than ever before, this year actually featured the most substantial changes for the agency then we have seen. The tawdry price that the agency, or Joan to be specific, had to pay for the Jaguar account seems to be for nothing as SCDP finds itself caught in a void between niche agency and major player. In the major turning point of the season, For Immediate Release (Episode 6), Don hacks through the status quo with reckless swagger as he cuts Jaguar off and merges with rivals, and Peggy's new agency, Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Alan Sepinwall pointed out how this episode mirrored last season's controversial The Other Woman but with Don playing meddling villain instead of protesting innocent bystander. In the course of the episode he undoes everything that has happened in that episode, he makes Joan's humiliating decision meaningless and drags Peggy back into the fold. Joan, usually an ally of Don's whose spared his nastier side, gives him a deserved verbal thrashing but it is obviously Peggy who sees the extent of his destruction in its fullest. She is caught between her new mentor, a more noble inversion of Don, and her old one, the obstacle she had to strike down to move forward. As she sees the warm, caring Ted, who she is falling in love with, be warped and dragged down by his competition with Don, she is more attune then ever to the full destructiveness of Don Draper. By the end of the season she has usurped Don as the head creative of the newly named SC & P but on the terms of others. In SCDP, reckless men like Don Draper and Roger Sterling get to make the decisions that shape the company while someone as smart and perceptive as Peggy is pulled along by their current.

 But this season was at its core about Don, which is hardly a new angle for the show but this year was a character study that was more focused than anything we have had in a while. The spirit of Dick Whitman was played up more than ever and like many I was weary of what seemed like one of the shows more superfluous and overplayed motifs. We got another brunette mistress in Sylvia who was there largely to illustrate how utterly ruthless and selfish Don could be in his womanising and by the time he descends into actual sado-masochist role playing it became clear that things were even worse than they seemed. We always knew that Don had intimacy issues, that he was raised by a fundamentalist in a whorehouse but this season we got a direct exploration of how damaging this experience was. Don is a damaged, even sick, man and while it seemed obvious he needs to confront this to 'get better', this year's arc made it clear how incapable he was of continuing with the Don Draper façade. When Sally sees him have sex with Sylvia it’s the last straw, he's passed on his destructive repressed sexuality to his child and he needs to confront it or do the same damage that was dealt to him in the whorehouse. At first he makes up some of the worst lies he ever has but its clear that the father persona he has constructed, one persona of many, is crumbling quickly. As the falsehood that defines him continues to corrode his functionality and destroys his one positive outlet, advertising, he is forced to make a choice: confront the past or become a bitter old relic. The final moment of the season is the most hopeful and poignant the series has ever given us, Don finally exposing himself to those who were once the most shielded from his true self, his children. Like The Sopranos, Mad Men's final episodes seem to hinge on whether its protagonist can take advantage of the epiphany given to them and perhaps find redemption. Does Don have a shot? For the first time since the series began I suspect he might.

 Its been a strong year for Mad Men, though not the strongest, and there's so much I haven't even touched upon (the magnificent Bob Benson arc is the most glaring omission). The show continues to use unconventional narrative and unique directorial flourishes as its main selling point against its peers. Episodes like the The Doorway (Episode 1-2) and The Crash (Episode 8) are some of the most visually distinct hours of television since The Sopranos. While their were more forgettable moments this year than last season (the stretch between the premier and the merger seemed aimless and frustrating on first watch) it all added up to a more cohesive whole. We've got high stakes going into the finale and I'm more interested in seeing how the series ends than ever before and this is precisely what a penultimate season of such an accomplished long-running series should aim for.