Mad Men: The Wheel (S01E13)

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A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

Is there a difference between perfection and greatness? After watching “The Wheel”, I would say there definitely is. The season finale of Mad Men‘s first season is by no means a perfect episode of television. It’s not even a perfect episode of Mad Men. It is, however, one of the finest, deepest, most effective, and overall great episodes of the show, and one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It doesn’t matter that “The Wheel” is not perfect. Actually, it’s better this way. It had to handle too many of the season’s story-lines as to be able to have its themes and character arcs wrap up in a neatly tied bow. So, what we have instead is an episode in which the characters’ stories are somewhat tied through plot, and loosely tied through a pretty general theme. But also, what we get is some of the most poignant moments the series ever produced, and an ending that defines our understanding of the series as a whole.

So, let’s stop getting around it, and talk about the big moment in the episode: Don’s pitch to Kodak. Sterling Cooper is aggressively looking for new business, and they hear Kodak is unsatisfied with the pitches it has been getting for their new slide projector, nicknamed The Wheel. At the same time, Don now has the package Adam sent him in his possession, and looking at the pictures of him and Adam as young boys sparks some sense of nostalgia in him. He decides to give Adam a call, and he, of course, finds out that his brother has killed himself. It’s a development that shakes up Don’s inner life, but one that colors his pitch to Kodak in a wonderful way. And so, The Wheel becomes The Carousel, a machine that doesn’t travel in space, but in time. A piece of technology that lets us look at the precious moments of our past. There is no way I can do justice to this scene, so here it is.

And in case you can’t watch the video right now, here’s a transcript:

Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart. Far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ Its called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel in a way a child travels. Round and round, and then back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.

Don’s pitch is masterful, thanks in no small part to Jon Hamm’s superb performance. It leaves Harry Crane, who is been sleeping at the office after cheating on his wife, in tears. Most important to the company, it leaves the Kodak executives in awe. The people in the room, however, are not the only ones sold on the pitch. It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that Don sells himself on his own pitch, but rather that his speech is so effective because he already had bought into it. The idea of The Carousel is essential to Don Draper’s existence. We’ve spent thirteen episodes with this character, and now it’s finally the moment when we understand where he’s coming from. He is trying to escape a childhood that brought him nothing but misery, he is trying to create a new life that will give him that nostalgic pain. Somewhere where, as he says, he can be loved. Whether or not he has achieved it (I would say he hasn’t), it doesn’t matter, he did a good enough job selling this product as to believe that he might have.

Very early in the episode we learn that Betty and the children are going away for Thanksgiving with her family, but Don is not going. What Don learns about Adam, and the especially the Kodak meeting have such an effect on him that he runs home in order to catch his family and go spend thanksgiving with them. That’s where the brilliant gut-punch of the episode comes, he gets home, and they’re already gone. The last image we see is Don sitting alone in the shadows of an empty home, once more being unable to reach the happiness he has been striving for all these years.

Also in this Episode:
I think the connective tissue in this episode is the theme of loneliness. For example, we get a wrap-up to Betty’s story-line as she finally finds out his husband has been calling her therapist to hear about her sessions. Betty is without a doubt one of the most fascinating characters of this season, and she gets a defining moment in the scene in which she encounters Glen at the parking lot. We see a deeply sad woman, who is desperately trying to connect to someone, holding hands with a small child, because there is nobody else she can go to. Similarly, we finally learn that the reason why Peggy gained all that weight was because she was pregnant, and the scene in which she refuses to hold her and Pete’s child is also heartbreakingly dark. Pretty much every character in this seasons of Mad Men has been on a futile quest for happiness, trying to find it in places that prove to be nothing but empty boxes.

Random Thoughts

  • We, of course, know that it wasn’t Teddy that told Don that nostalgia mean the pain from an old wound. It was Rachel Menken! I’m still not sure what the meaning of Don incorporating such a pivotal Rachel line into his pitch means, but I expect to be thinking about that question all throughout this re-watch.
  • The show’s treatment of Peggy’s pregnancy is a very divisive point of discussion. For once, it made Elisabeth Moss wear that terrible fat-suit for half a season. A lot of people also question how Peggy couldn’t have realized that she was pregnant for a whole nine months. To that complain, many people respond by pointing out that there are whole television shows devoted to women who don’t realize they’re pregnant. Anyway, I’m not quite ready to give my final word on the show’s treatment of this story-line at least until I write about next season.
  • This episode brings us yet another introduction to a character that will play a bigger role in future episodes: it’s Carla, the Draper’s housemaid.

And now, some funny lines:

  • “It’s too bad your voice is so annoying”
  • “I got the bonus, and Cooper gave me some book by Ayn Rand”
  • “Your first account will be delivering Clearasil to the spotted masses”


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