In almost every episode of Mad Men, artistic elements are used in order to support and enhance each scene: elements such as lighting, music, and nuances in the text. Many of these elements are present in two short, continuous scenes in the episode, “New Amsterdam”, directed by Alan Taylor and written by Matthew Weiner. Taylor, along with the rest of the Mad Men creative team, used artistic elements in order to further characterize the new woman on the block: Helen Bishop.
In this episode, there is a scene in which Betty witnesses an uncomfortable interaction between Helen Bishop and her ex-husband, Dan. The first shot reveals Betty walking the dog, after putting the kids to sleep. As she approaches Helen’s house, we see Dan pounding on the door, wanting to be let in. He sees Betty and asks to use her phone, but she refuses him.
This whole sequence is interesting because of how Taylor decided to shift the mood from pleasant to gloomy. When Betty is simply walking her dog, nothing seems to be wrong. But the moment we hear pounding on Helen’s door, dark and sinister music begins to play. The lighting becomes a bit darker, and we realize it’s about to be nighttime. The director had a reason for wanting a darker mood to surface the moment Betty reaches Helen’s home.
The next shot shows Betty’s feet (in slippers) walking down the stairs to answer the door, clearly on the same night. When she opens the door, we hear, “Can I come in?” but we cannot see a face. Again, there is a feeling of mystery and suspicion because we hear a noise but do not see who is speaking until Betty opens the door…and Helen walks into the house.
The following conversation is emblematic of the show’s theme of people covering up their true feelings in order to seem polite or even just to seem happy. Whereas the earlier shots in front of Helen’s house are rich in artistic elements (music, lighting, etc.), this scene in Betty’s house is rich in text. Helen starts off by apologizing for Dan’s rude behavior and reveals how embarrassed she is about the whole thing. Helen’s admittance of her embarrassment startles Betty, forcing Betty to instantly reply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about," even though she is clearly aware of the situation.
As the scene continues, Helen shares a bit too much information for Betty to handle, stating the reason she left Dan; he was cheating on her with women in Manhattan. Weiner is clearly poking fun at the viewer in this conversation, because we all know that Don Draper is doing the exact same thing. It is no coincidence that “Dan” and “Don” would be the same name if not for one letter. Helen states the truth about something that Betty cannot bare to discuss or even think about, for obvious reasons.
Through the mysterious tone of the first scene, and the awkward interaction in the second scene, Taylor and Weiner create a foil by strongly differentiating the characters of Betty and Helen; one is polite and refined, while the other is blunt and able to express her true feelings. The mysterious lighting and music of the previous scene foreshadowed the dark topic of the ladies’ conversation about affairs and divorces. This just goes to show how every detail in Mad Men is planned and constructed for a reason- every detail goes towards telling a more clear and dynamic story.
The above image is posted at http://woodscolt.wordpress.com/2009/09.