“Mad Men”: Don’s character progression in “The Wheel”

In the finale episode of the first season of Mad Men entitled The Wheel we see a definite shift between Don’s relationship to work and his family from the start of the episode to the end of the episode. Though I personally haven’t seen much Mad Men in the past, in this blog post I will attempt to map out Don’s character shift through closely analysing a few scenes in this episode which I feel are the most relevant to this character development.

The first scene I wish to discuss is near the beginning of the episode in which Don and Betty are sitting up in bed beside each other. The lighting is typical to any “boudoir” television scene. The room is dark, shadowy, typically subdued. Generally this type of lighting in this type of setting is used to convey the intimacy of the scene. However this scene is anything but intimate. In a way, the lighting undermines the notion of intimacy, its darkness instead suggesting the moodiness and harshness of the marriage in its current state.

Don is reading the paper while Betty natters on about and jots down notes on shopping items. Betty begins to goad Don about not wanting to come to her family’s thanksgiving celebrations. At first we get a medium shot of the couple in their bed, but as the conversation continues we get close-ups in order to garner the pair’s expressions.  Betty’s plea, “What about Sally and Bobby’s childhood memories?” is important to the arc of the episode, as will be established later.  At this point, the comment is immediately brushed off by Don. The couple don’t talk to each other; instead they talk forwards, not looking at each other, highlighting their emotional distance.  However when Betty states “I don’t think you want to go” she looks straight at Don, making his harsh response, “I’m sorry, was I unclear about that?” all the more cutting.

In a later scene, in a darkened, lonely room, sits Don, looking gloomy and isolated. He is staring at an old, black and white picture of his brother as a child. The use of the picture is important; it conveys the past, the link between nostalgia and family bonds, as Don will soon learn. He attempts to contact his brother, who in previous episodes he has shunned, and receives the terrible news that he has hanged himself. Don is clearly devastated. We get a close-up of Don’s traumatised face, his head in his hands. The camera then zooms out and fades to black, leaving Don in his emotional turmoil. This is the turning point in terms of Don’s emotional development of the episode – he begins to realise the consequences that his arrogance and current value system has on the people around him; namely his family, the people closest to him.

In the boardroom scene with the Kodak representatives – we see the notion of “nostalgia” established as an important theme of the episode and relevant to Don’s emotional change of heart. Don states to the executives that sometimes the public can become “engaged on a level beyond flash.” This is a neat sum up of Don’s shift throughout the episode. Can he be engaged with the elements of his life that exist beyond his flashy, important, executive lifestyle, namely through reconnecting with his family?

The scene begins in a large, bright, well lit office room. The “mad men” are laughing, jovially – very macho and businesslike. When Don begins his sales pitch, we see a long shot of all the men in the boardroom. Don is at the centre of the scene; he is controlling it. We get a shot from below – conveying his power in the scene; the men are resting on his every word. However, when Don utters “Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent” the lights are switched off, the projector starts, and suddenly there is a shift in the tone of the scene. The room is suddenly shrouded in darkness, and the viewer is invited into Don’s private world. We are directed to the slides glowing on the projector; they are of his life; his memories.

This is Don’s intimate emotional state in the guise of a boardroom meeting. (Though of course the presentation is still commercially compelling for the Kodak representatives.) As he watches the pictures of his life, his family, his wife, he becomes increasingly emotional. He wishes to return to “a place where we know we are loved” as a picture of his and Betty embracing appears on the projector. It is clear that he has learnt a lesson stemming from the notion of nostalgia – that his relationship to his family is what moves him, what will ultimately matter, and what he will wish to remember.

This realisation makes the episodes conclusion all the more moving. We get Don’s initial return, which we don’t yet know is imagined. Don arrives home, he calls out, “Hello?” Betty responds, “Don?” Don moves through their lovely, warmly lit home, as his beautiful wife stands before him. His cute kids are sitting on the couch in their thanksgiving garb. Sally calls out, “Daddy! Are you coming with us?” and when Betty declines, the children are clearly disappointed. Don then states, “I’m coming with you.” Betty smiles; the couple kiss, and the kids run up to hug their father. It is a warm, fairytale moment. If it had been real, it would have been a moment to remember.

However then we see the reality. Don comes home, he calls out “Hello? Hello?” The house is dark; empty. We get a shot from the stairs, looking down. Don stands there dwarfed and alone. Slowly, he sits down on the stairs. We see him from front on, close up. He is disappointed, lonely and dejected. Then we see him again from the back; he is tiny and dark. He realises it is too late. The lyric from a song pierces the scene: “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, baby.”  However this is exactly what Don is doing. He sits before us, weighing up the choices he has made in his life and their consequences. He appears to be pondering how he could have gotten to this point of distance in his married life. The darkness and loneliness of the scene reaffirms the notion of the importance of family apart from the “flash” of Don’s arrogant, executive lifestyle. It establishes the overall difficulty of Don’s character progression throughout the episode and indeed the season: the struggle between his work life and ambitions – and his increasingly distant relationship with his family and wife.

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One thought on ““Mad Men”: Don’s character progression in “The Wheel”

  1. Wow, spot on breakdown here! I agree, you can definitely see a progression in Don’s character just through this one episode alone. I haven’t viewed much of Mad Men either, but I think this is very accurate from what I got from it. I can only imagine the crazy character development that occurred with Don from the very first episode, to the very last!

    I’m really glad that you brought up a bit about the song played in the background of the last shot of this episode, Bob Dylan’s – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, as I also noticed this choice of sound editing. The first line is, “Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe”, which I believe does fit appropriately with Don’s situation with his family. However, I think some of the other lines in this song depict this particular situation even better.

    I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’, walkin’ down the road,
    I once loved a woman, a child I’m told
    I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
    But don’t think twice, it’s all right

    I think these lines fit especially well with the troubles Don is having with his wife, Betty. There is obviously a feeling of disconnection and lost-love between them, and this song is about the despair that comes from this. But, then again maybe it’s best to “not think twice, it’s all right”, which Don is doing precisely at the end of the episode, as he sits there and feels bad for himself, instead of getting in his car and driving to meet his family.

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