What does it all mean?

A close textual analysis of Mad Men S01 E13 “The Wheel” – the scene where Don comes home from work the day Francine has confided in Betty that her husband, Carlton, has been cheating.

The scene opens on the dining area. We see through the window that it is nighttime. Betty sits in her quilted white robe at the foot of the table with her back to the camera. She is softly illuminated by offscreen tungsten lighting from both sides. The overhead light remains off. The camera is at her height. Despite being sat at the dining room table, the scene feels tense and void of the homeliness usually associated with a wife welcoming home a husband in the kitchen area. There is no food – only a bottle of red wine and smoke drifting from a cigarette Betty inhales vigorously.

We hear a rustling as the front door opens and Don enters the scene. There is no lighting in the door alcove. He stands tall and the camera rises to his level. He is dressed in his work clothes – the darkness of his suit, hair and overcoat merging with the darkness of the doorway and contrasting with Betty.

As Don steps into his home he takes off his overcoat, greets Betty by her pet name and kisses her on the forehead. There is a sense of intimacy and familiarity, yet Betty remains silent. However, she does not go unnoticed by the camera as we see her casting glances at Don. Is she relieved he has come home? Or is it more surprise? Is she wondering what’s kept him back so long? Is she quietly planning what to say? These questions are all answered when Betty finally breaks her silence, asking gently why, at 9.30pm he didn’t just stay in the city. Although this could be mistaken for concern or understanding, we know that this is Betty’s way of airing her suspicions and introducing her confrontation of (and warning to) Don. Betty’s mention of the time, without consulting a watch or clock, indicates that she’s been waiting there for hours, overly aware of the minutes passing between the time Don should’ve been home and the time he actually walked through the front door.

Don remains standing as he speaks loudly and formally to Betty about the need to continue his work from home. At this, Betty becomes passive aggressive, bringing up a previous argument about Thanksgiving. She is chastised by Don and we watch her change tactics, apologising for her anger and instead seeking sympathy for the terrible day she’s had – again, a method of introducing the confrontation/warning. As she speaks she looks straight ahead at no one and nothing, until a sudden tilt of her head as she averts her eyes and demands (albeit coquettishly) that he sit with her.

Don pacifies his wife and does as he’s told. As he sits at the table he and Betty are now at the same height and the camera lowers to its original position. The closer proximity of their bodies allows Don to speak in softer tones, emphasising the fact that he is now at home speaking to his wife, and not at work conversing with a client.

As Betty begins telling Don about Francine’s disclosure that Carlton has been cheating, the conversation is depicted through shot-reverse shot editing. Medium close ups position both characters onscreen and illustrate their interaction and body language throughout the (disguised) interrogation. Then at particularly pertinent moments, where Betty’s words are loaded with double meaning, we see close up shots of Betty and Don. These shots really emphasise the fact that the words being spoken are only a minor part of this conversation, as the implications run much deeper for both. Betty pauses intermittently throughout her story, holding strong eye contact with Don, challenging him to confess. With a crinkled forehead and eyebrows raised, Don returns eye contact for a moment, but then wavers, revealing more to Betty than his carefully considered words.

 

The lighting on both Betty and Don’s faces also serves to deepen the undertones of the unspoken conversation. Both characters are partly illuminated, the light falling across their faces in a traditional Rembrandt style. The darkness across Don’s face reestablishes what both the viewer and Betty know – that there is an element of mystery to Don, that what you see isn’t all that you get. And the darkness across Betty’s face amplifies the fact that there is a darker meaning behind her telling Don the story of Francine and Carlton.

The close up shots also serve to posit the characters within their environment. Behind Don we see uniformly-patterned masculine wallpaper, and we see the front door/window area – his means of entering the house, but also his means of escaping it. Behind Betty we see the family home – the lounge room furnished comfortably and warmly lit with lamps. She speaks of the bond that love and children is supposed to create between a married couple, alluding to Francine and Carlton, but leaving Don with no doubt that she is addressing him directly as she says “Doesn’t this all mean anything?” – the choice of “this” rather than “that” bringing the conversation hurtling from Francine and Carlton’s house to right in there, unavoidably in front of them.

Betty has made her point and is emotionally in control of the situation, so Don reasserts his authority the best way he can. He ends the conversation by standing, reintroducing his powerful physical presence into the scene, and squeezes Betty’s shoulder as he departs, telling her to bring the wine. As Don stands, the camera rises again, and for the first time in the scene we hear non-diagetic sound in the form of a slow and dramatic string instrumental. The instrumental carries over as the scene cuts.

Moody’s monsters

In the 1990s HBO revolutionised long-form drama. And in the 1990s HBO’s catch cry was “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

Was it the work of highly effective advertising strategy (amazing brand positioning, kudos!) that saw complex narrative shows (as typified by those screened on HBO) deemed “Quality TV”? Or was it rather the more upper class educated audience that posited these shows as intellectually and culturally superior to the ‘soapbox trash’ favoured by your run of the mill Darren and Sharon? I’ve come to think it may well be a case of the chicken and the egg.

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” came about through brand positioning exercises conducted within the company, including establishing what HBO did NOT want to be. As a pay to subscribe service, HBO had to make sure viewers were getting what they paid for each month – something different and something better. In defining themselves by something they’re not, the branding line became the driving force behind HBO’s programming, and as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy (Adamson 2006).

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” remains such a touchstone for quality within HBO that it even extends to the advertising. Says Adamson, “HBO’s advertising is a branding signal that no ordinary television network could use. Like the programming, the advertising is groundbreaking.” Indeed, world famous photographer Annie Leibovitz is often called upon to provide photographs for HBO programs, most notably The Sopranos.

 

So is it merely a direct comparison to ‘ordinary television’ that elevates other programs to ‘quality television’? Not so, says Mittell (2006) who argues that ‘the model of television storytelling distinct for its use of narrative complexity’ elicits ‘unique pleasures and patterns of comprehension’ (p.29) within a more niche, more passionate, and more educated audience. Interestingly, this “boutique” audience is comprised of people who usually avoid television, but when it comes to the shows that get their eyeballs twitching in anticipatory delight their dedication and consistent cult-like following is enough to make the shows economically viable (and advertising agencies twitch in delight everywhere else).

As technological advances have meant that the viewer has more control over what they watch (and when and how) the dedicated fan base of “Quality TV” can collect episodes, if not series, of their favourite shows and binge on them season at a time. But it doesn’t stop there – collectability means rewatchability which leads to a deeper knowledge of (and, arguably, obsession with) these shows, attributes that reward the viewer of a complex narrative program with the ability to actively and attentively comprehend and decode the mode of storytelling.

Although “Quality TV” may be seen as a genre in itself, the programs that fall within this category span a number of traditional genres, The Wire, Queer As Folk, The X-Files and Sex & The City demonstrate but a few. In fact, it was Mittell’s discussion of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer that really highlighted the trope of quality across seemingly disparate programs. As Mittell drew upon monsters-of-the-week and underlying conspiracy theories to demonstrate one of the major demands of narrative complexity – the delivery of both episodic and serial storytelling – I started to think about Hank Moody. Ah, Hank Moody.

 

(Only realised the David Duchovny connection as I was searching for images. Could Duchovny be the face of Quality TV?)

Hank’s monsters-of-the-week, be they Mia, Surfer Girl or Trixie, are the episodic storytelling elements that serve to ‘advance various narrative arcs…’ (serial storytelling aspects) ‘as characters reveal key secrets and deepen relationships to move the season-long plot forward’. Hank’s weekly dance with a she-devil disrupts any traces of domestic harmony with Karen and Becca, yet fans of the show understand that the love Karen and Hank share might be enough for them to come together in the end (the equivalent of The X-Files’ conspiracy theories). It might event be enough to withstand the murder-suicide pact of a psychotic ex-girlfriend…

Series 6, I await you.

 

REFERENCES

Adamson, A (2006) BrandSimple: How the best brands keep it simple and succeed, Palgrave Macmillian, pp.83-86.

Mittell, J (2006) ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, The Velvet Light Trap, vol.58, Fall, pp.29-40.

Bring on the beasts and boobs

I’d never watched Game of Thrones. I’d heard good things – but I’d heard them from fantasy fans. Fanboys and fangirls alike were dedicating their Monday nights to group viewings of the HBO show. I was dedicating my Tuesday mornings to skimming through post after Facebook post about the previous night’s show, unengaged and disinterested.

I have to admit, however, that after the screening of the first episode of Game of Thrones as part of the TV Cultures course my interest was piqued. My assumptions about the show were based on genre and taste, but certainly not gender. Mythical creatures in faraway lands don’t usually float my boat. I couldn’t sit through even one Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek makes me shudder. But it was precisely the elements of Game of Thrones critiqued as being “boy fiction” that I enjoyed. Beasts balanced with boobs. Royal banquets bookended by orgies and incest.

Image

“Beheadings, barbarians, bastards and boobs. We we f**king love Game of Thrones.”

Twitter @IGN

Sure, the assumption that these elements of Game of Thrones are what keep the boys interested is probably well-founded, but the challenge to that assumption is clear in the plethora of online content written by female bloggers – not just fangirls and geek girls, but your Average Joeline as well.

In response to a NY Times criticism positing Game of Thrones as “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half”, a fan wrote:

“This made me shriek…and nearly toss my laptop across the room… I find the terms ‘girl fiction’ and ‘boy fiction’ offensive and needlessly discriminating.”

(Faith, 2011)

Maybe I’ll give Game of Thrones another go. Episode 2 Season 1 leaves me plenty of time to get hooked (and plenty of time to escape!). Perhaps fantasy isn’t so bad. Perhaps fanatic friends are not geeks. And perhaps the show doesn’t appeal because of gender, but because it’s full of good stuff. Perhaps.

 

REFERENCES

McNutt, M (2011) ‘Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews of HBO’s Game of Thrones’, blog, 9 April, Cultural Learnings, viewed 5 September 2012, <http://cultural-learnings.com/2011/04/09/questions-of-taste-dissecting-the-dissection-of-early-reviews-of-hbos-game-of-thrones/>.

Taillefer, C (2011) ‘Game of Thrones? More like Game of Bones. As in ‘boners’.’ blog, 15 April, Bibliotech, viewed 31 August 2012, <http://celinetaillefer.blogspot.com/2011/04/game-of-thrones-more-like-game-of-bones.html>.