Smart, Psychoactivating Jump Cuts Enliven the Mad Men Season Premiere

Slate's Culture Blog
March 25 2012 11:00 PM

Mad Men's Clever Depiction of Getting High

Mad Men (Season 5)
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie)

Michael Yarish/AMC.,Michael Yarish/AMC

Director Jennifer Getzinger makes many inspired choices in “A Little Kiss”—episode 501/502 of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men—and at least one involves actual inspiration, breathing in. With Don Draper’s new femme having plotted a surprise party for him that doubles as a social debut for her, their high-rise apartment is the scene of music, attempted merriment, passing misdemeanors. The audience catches a whiff of a glimpse of a joint smoked on the balcony by the hostess’s boho friends, and then Ken Cosgrove announces that he and the missus are “thinking about smoking some tea" with them. It is playfully threatened that Cosgrove, mad with reefer, will recite original poetry, and this in itself would provide many of us with its own impetus to just say no and flee the scene. Nonetheless, the gang goes along with things.

Or so it is implied when (at the 38:22 mark on my screener) Getzinger abruptly cuts to black just for a meaningful moment, for the space of the skip of a needle across scratched vinyl, in a trick indebted to jagged Godard jump cuts. We reenter the party on a shot of the band—a saxophonist's full and languid exhalation. The light, the camera height, the depth of field are not quite describably off, psychoactivated.

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The blackout represents, very approximately, a kind of Sopranos-finale solution to the problem of depicting recreational drug use and suggesting its effects. It saves the people in Standards and Pactices some tsuris, and it saves those at home the embarrassment of watching actors drag on stunt doobies. And it has a double later on in the episode, when Don flips the pages of a broadsheet and the screen goes dark for a sec before the narrative delivers a treatment of then-current events.

Perhaps what is suavest about the sharp vagueness of this approach is that it’s the party that ends up stoned rather than any of the individual parties in it. Peggy’s subsequent halting cocktail chatter (a lingual trip-up of assertive self-pity) and the paranoia hovering above Harry Crane for the rest of the night proceed cleanly from the generalized wooziness of an intoxicated atmosphere.

Slate’s TV Club will be chatting with readers about the Mad Men premiere and what to expect from the show’s fifth season. Join them on Facebook at noon on Monday, March 26 to take part in the chat.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.