Welcome to the Tournament Of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here.
It’s part two of our readers’ choice round, with the victor going on to face Community’s “Cooperative Polygraphy” in the finals. Your choice is Mad Men’s “The Strategy.” Our choice was The Good Wife’s “Hitting The Fan,” which got here by taking out Bob’s Burgers, The Americans, and Hannibal. Mad Men is here thanks to your votes. Todd VanDerWerff has to make this impossible choice.
The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan” vs. Mad Men, “The Strategy”
Todd VanDerWerff: The first thing one notices when watching “Hitting The Fan” and “The Strategy” in rapid succession is that the two provide an eerie mirror for each other. The former centers on a professional, occasionally personal relationship between male and female work colleagues that is disintegrating. The latter places at its center the same thing, only it’s rebuilding itself. Both feature lots of complicated business maneuvering, only in “Hitting The Fan,” things move at warp speed, while in “The Strategy,” the shifts are drops in the bucket of a larger, longer story. And ultimately, both are about definition as the central female characters—Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in the former; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in the latter—attempt to understand what it is to be themselves. Alicia wants a professional context where she can stand on her own; Peggy worries that by defining herself through her job, she’s thrown away a chance at a family.
They are both magnificent episodes of television. I could pick either over the other for any reason whatsoever, right down to the order I watched them in. (For the record, I watched “Hitting” first, then “Strategy.”) It was fun to watch Lockhart-Gardner immolate, only to turn right around and see Sterling Cooper & Partners begin a process of reintegration that would culminate in the season’s finale, another episode we very easily could have had in the mix.
But I’m picking “Hitting The Fan.” Here’s why.
Part of the vision of the Tournament Of Episodes is the idea that people will be confronted with shows they don’t know, with episodes that might not work out of context because the judges haven’t seen every single installment leading up to them. Oddly enough, though, episodes that have heavily serialized elements in them have done incredibly well in this tournament, with our judges often skewing toward things they know well or overwhelmed by the raw power that can be found in some of these massive climaxes. I think this is to be celebrated: So much TV dogma is built up around the idea that every episode must be seen, but I don’t really know if that’s true. There’s something to be said for watching an episode and not quite grasping what’s going on but knowing there’s more, and wanting it. I can understand: My first few Buffy episodes were the “Angel is evil” episodes, and then I didn’t watch again until the season-two finale, which made me realize that whatever I was looking at, it was my new thing, even if I didn’t yet get every single twist and turn.
Both “Hitting The Fan” and “The Strategy” play off the audience’s understood affection for the characters and certain pairings between them, but for all of their similarities, they do so in very different ways. “Hitting” is intent on tearing apart things it has carefully built and doing so as quickly as possible. Once the episode starts, it moves like a rocket, and the one time it pauses for breath (with a quickly shoehorned-in appearance by Alicia’s husband) only results in that tiny pause being pulled into everything else. The idea of Alicia and some of her cohorts leaving the law firm they’ve been at since season one to start their own firm has an irresistible momentum to it that soon gathers up everything in the show. I love how “Hitting” trusts us to keep up. When Beth pops up on the witness stand having betrayed Alicia and company, the show knows we’ll figure it out solely from having a character say, “Bitch.” Similarly, it lets us connect the dots on the ultimate scheme to keep vital tech-company client ChumHum with Alicia’s new firm. It’s so damn confident, and that’s irresistible.
“The Strategy,” meanwhile, is more faltering and less sure of itself, but that’s by design. The characters have been torn apart by everything from Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) ill-advised sojourn into his personal history during a pitch in season six to the company’s newly bicoastal nature. The fact that the episode is a bit uneasy about itself is part of its charm, I think. Mad Men got so much criticism in season six for repeating itself, so season seven swung in the opposite direction, making those stabs at repetition more halting and fumbling. Yet by the time Don and Peggy are talking together about the state of their lives, only to work their way around to the pitch that will become the episode’s center, the show is back to what it does best. By withholding from us for so long—even within the episode!—“The Strategy” makes those final moments all the more poignant.
So what we have is a comet versus a carefully constructed, handmade valentine. The former’s sleekness obscures what deeper themes it might have, while the latter’s faltering nature can be hard to take, even if viewers know where it’s going. I’m not entirely sure, for instance, that the lengthy subplot about Pete Campbell’s girlfriend coming to the city was entirely needed. It’s actually pretty good, but in a game won by millimeters, it detracts just enough to hold it back. As I watched “Hitting The Fan,” I worried it was slightly too mercenary, slightly too impressed with how thoroughly it tore down the series’ status quo. But as I watched “The Strategy,” I found myself wondering if all of the dallying—much of it great—on the way to The Scene was worth it.
So I tried to imagine myself watching these episodes without having seen the shows before. Neither would be completely easy to follow, but “Hitting The Fan” would have the advantage of its speed and its ruthless sense of humor. (Will telling Alicia that she needs to sign off on her daughter’s field trip in the middle of everything else is one of the scenes of the year.) “The Strategy” relies so heavily on knowing everything that’s happened between Don and Peggy that I couldn’t imagine a complete Mad Men newbie making sense of it.
The problem, of course, is that I’m not a Mad Men newbie. It’s one of my five or 10 favorite shows ever made, and while I like The Good Wife, it’s not at that level for me. But “Hitting The Fan” finds a pitch of horrified enthrallment about two minutes in that it summarily doesn’t let go for an entire hour. The centerpiece scene of “The Strategy” is better than any single scene in “Hitting The Fan,” but it’s also surrounded by a bunch of stuff that’s messier by design. I’m into the mess most of the time, but sometimes, the design is just sleek and impressive enough to make me overlook any quibbles I might have.
Winner: The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Tomorrow: All of our judges return to judge the final match!