The “carousel scene" from Episode 13 of Mad Men’s first season has been recently celebrated as one of the best moments in television. Critics, fans, and even casual observers have noted the scene for its dialogue, creativity and intellectual underpinning. These elements, however, are not what makes the scene so powerful; rather, it is the camera shots and the different angles from which the viewers see the characters. Indeed, the entire scene is filmed to prove the audience with an intimate setting to experience the power of nostalgia.
Naturally, any scene in film is composed of many different elements, and, the relationship between these elements determines the success or failure of scene. Excellent dialogue can be undercut by poor editing, while the best costumes and sets cannot fix wooden acting. Since film is a visual medium, the camera work takes a special place in all of this, because it physically captures what we see. The shots and their angles provide the window through which the audience peers, by highlighting what we should see and excluding what we should not. It is our only window into whatever it is we are watching.
The “carousel scene” derives it power because it understands and utilizes these relationships exquisitely. The window the camera creates turns Don’s pitch from something the audience watches into something they experience. By creating a series of continually smaller and tighter shots, finishing on either Don’s face or a side in the projector, the audience literally comes face to face with the power of nostalgia
After a few shot/reverse shots of the characters talking at the conference table, the lights dim, and the world of Sterling Cooper falls away. Everyone fades into the darkness, and all the audience sees is Don and the pictures of his family. Through the haze of memory and cigarette smoke, fragments of Dons life before the diegesis of the show emerge. These snapshots of love, celebration, rest and relaxation fill the shot—they becoming the entirety of the image. For a second, they are the entire world. We escape that office and that boardroom and, for an instant, travel into Dons past—perhaps a reflection of our own. His slides could be scenes from anyone's life, and by showing them to us as the entirety of the shot, we confront our own existence. It’s no longer a television program we see before us but the intimate moments of a human life. The shots take us out of the show and place us into the memories of a family, which may be remarkably similar to our own. By filling the screen, the slides become a portal into the pains of Don’s life, while echoing the nostalgia we feel for our own departed experiences.
Even Don himself is captivated by the images he sees from the projector. As he discusses the power of nostalgia, emotions build. He looses the cool conversational tone, and his voice begins to crack with feeling. The more Don talks, the more he feels the power of nostalgia, and the closer the camera moves towards him. The scene builds until Don’s face occupies the shot, and his voice cracks with heartache and sorrow. The audience experiences Don’s pain by seeing it in its totality. By filming Don and only Don, the emotions become much more powerful. The place “where we know we are loved” does not exist for him, and we wonder, does it exist for us?
Taken together, these camera angles and shots produce an extraordinarily powerful scene. The camera becomes a tool to convey feeling and reflection. It creates a complicated yet subtle emotional event for the viewer. Not only do we hear about the power of nostalgia, but we observe it in the primary character and sense it in our own hearts. The shots manifest the esoteric nature of Don’s ideas, making them real and palpable. It allows us to watch and feel the power of memory and heartache. It is this effect which makes the "carousel scene" so good—it shows us, through Don, a slice of our own lives.