Saturday, May 23, 2015

’71: Take a Dramamine and One or Two Aspirins

Scalding

     ’71, the film debut of French television director Yann Demange, moves at an electric pace like an update of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), in which James Mason played a wounded IRA bank robber struggling to remain alive with the police after him in a Belfast-like city.  In ’71, Jack O’Connell is an English soldier, who finds himself abandoned after a house raid for weapons goes wrong, and has no idea where to turn in the rabbit warren of alleyways in a part of Belfast that is Catholic and anti-English.  The plot sounds straightforward, but there’s a parallel story, which is far more sinister and complex involving political expediencies and double crosses on both sides.

Jack O'Connell
     Argo (2012) started with an overview of American involvement in Iran, which put the siege and abandonment of the embassy and the hostage-taking in context.  I’d be surprised that Britons under the age of forty remember the intricacies of the English (Protestant) – Irish (Catholic) civil war and the height of its violence forty-four years ago.  I can’t think that Americans would be familiar with any of this.  ’71 shows a (brief) briefing scene in which the squad leader sees a map of the city by friendly and hostile neighborhoods.  The soldiers don’t see this and the viewer never has a sense of where the scenes are set in terms of friend or foe.  Uncertainty works as the undertow to the suspense, but it also yields a limited and ultimately cynical view of the struggle.

     It achieves a verisimilitude with British films from the ‘70s through great, grubby production design and lighting that looks smoky and gritty in the daylight sequences and oily at night.  The editing and camerawork are the most memorable of their kind since The Hurt Locker (2009).  In fact, this may be a sub-genre in itself, starting with Bloody Sunday (2002), of the slashing naturalistic re-enactment of recent historical conflict.  The realistic acting, authentic because none of these actors would ever be featured in an American movie – even an Oscar contender. They look like people walking the streets of Belfast that might shake hands or shoot you.

    There are moments of real shock and horror.  Neil had had enough after ten minutes because of the violence.  The makeup in the killings is breath-taking (and not in an enjoyable way), even for those that have seen countless criminal justice TV shows.  A bomb scene stunned me that I saw coming, but not when it hit.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Could The Lone Bellow be Americana’s first Superstars?

Then Came The Morning

The Lone Bellows Performing on
The Late Show with David Letterman
     Neil heard The Lone Bellow a couple of times on WNKU – yes, the region’s coolest radio station – and then checked them out singing “Then Came The Morning” on a YouTube clip from David Letterman’s show.   It’s a joyous sounding break-up song that’s tempered by the dialectic of Zach Williams’ nasal tenor, Kanene Donehey Pipkin’s enveloping soprano, and Brian Elmquist’s steadying baritone.  Both have strong pipes that power through, quiver and quaver, or plainly state the lyrics.  “Take My Love,” on the other hand, is a straight ahead pleading love song with a bass line and intro that made me think the narrator might be a stalker.  

Zach Williams and Brian Elmquist*
     There are a number of influences flowing through The Lone Bellow’s sound, which can be majestic or lilting in “Call To War,” where Pipkin’s lead vocal sounds like it just hopped over from Galway.  “Diners” could be a mid-tempo pop song from 1955 to now, while “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” is the best lament for a southern past since Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind,” or Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929) for that matter, in its lyrics, but rhythm rocks like a forgotten song by Charlie Daniels or Jerry Lee Lewis.  

     “Cold As It Is,” pulls it all together with a pulsing, upbeat tempo and a pop chorus set against a first verse that links Greek and Christian myth:

     ‘cold as it is, I wouldn’t leave my baby doll, 
          wouldn’t leave’
     ‘I saw you walkin’ on the water while I was/drowning 
          underneath/eyes just like 
     any other daughter, pulling me/into the deep/your 
          name was written on the apple,
     I carved my name into that tree/pure gold but, darling, 
          it’s unnatural the way/you bring me to my knees’

It’s a great song that isn’t the last on the album, but it feels like a bookend to “Then Came The Morning.”









     This crazy quilt dichotomy that plays out in a completely assured style and sound has led to writers calling The Lone Bellow everything from the best country to come out of Brooklyn to indie rock to alternative pop to whatever else can be thought up.  Even their CD cover and inside photos present polar opposite images that hang together as if intended from before their first memory.  Someone’s lonely grandmother sips her morning coffee on the front and her in need of an update 1960s kitchen with the washed pots and pans waiting to be put back on the shelf.  Inside, we see the trio (they’re assisted by a couple of other musicians, who aren’t pictured) and they look like they could be going to dinner at The Four Seasons.  

    Williams reminded Neil of Joe Cocker’s flailing intensity when he saw him.  It’s apt, but Williams, Pipkin, and Elmquist are supremely self-assured, which Cocker, to his great misfortune, was not.  Americana is a musical genre that has been cobbled together to include a number of mature artists that were either country-rock (back in the 20th century) or roots rockers or alt or, whatever can be named.  Its grande dame is Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell the Grand Vizier.  To be more viable commercially, which might go completely against its intentions, it needs a new artist as star and potential superstar.  The Lone Bellow gets my vote hands down.

*Photo by Louis Kwok

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fond: Lunch and Deli

Ready or not, I'm truly fond of this place

     I started to think about my lunch at Fond and I found myself wanting more.  More information and more of their food.  I REALLY wanted to like this place, but there were a couple of things that happened when we were there that had me on the fence.  So I decided to wait for a return visit to make my final call.

     Ethan Snider is the chef owner and a hummus aficionado.  He's been making the artisan dips locally for almost three years and selling at local farmers markets and Park + Vine.  Opening his own storefront in Montgomery created a whole new avenue for peddling his wares, as well as products from other local start-ups in the culinary field.  It all sounded intriguing for a lunch stop in that area of town.

Tuna Melt with Sausage Chili Bean Soup
     Karen and I first visited last week.  It was a hot day for May and the door was open to the strip center store with dining tables inside and out.  It took a while to get through the blackboard menu of the day, finding both the familiar and slightly offbeat.  The Grilled Hummus and Cheese Sandwich caught my attention, while the Tuna Melt was calling Karen.  We decided to share the sandwiches in order to sample more of the offerings.  Ethan was the only visible worker, so I was curious as to how all of this was going to work.  Karen placed her sandwich order with him, adding a cup of the Sausage Chili Bean Soup. As we suspected, Ethan was doing it all and he went to work on Karen's order.  It all seemed a little odd that he didn't take my order, but it gave us more time to peruse the place and look through the 6-8 offerings of hummus, as well as soups, pickles, honey, cookies and more from the Fond kitchen and other local artisans.  Her lunch was packed and ready and we were off!  But wait…we were lunching in and I didn't have anything to eat yet!  Ethan apologized profusely and heated up the grill immediately for my sandwich made with my choice of "Gussie" hummus with garbanzo beans and asparagus.  

Grilled Gussie Hummus and Jarlsberg Cheese Sandwich
     At last we were ready for our food tasting to begin.  The Albacore tuna salad had a light dressing and slivers of carrot.  Melted Jarlsberg cheese complemented the mixture along with the artisan bread.  The soup was dense and flavorful, but too spicy for my low tolerance taste buds.  The hummus sandwich was my favorite. Its consistency was creamy with a bite from the melted cheese that blended oh so well on more of the artisan bread.  Both choices were simple with light and complex flavor combinations.  Wavy homemade potato chips with a coating of herbs accompanied the selections.

      Not everything was working well on our initial visit, but I could tell that the owner was taking it seriously and processing the scenario.  How did I know that?  My sandwich was gratis and that was enough to tell me that this place is in it to make it, allowing me to form my final decision without reservation or another visit.

     Thank you, Ethan and much success!

Fond: Lunch and Deli on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 11, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

A French update on the metaphysics of 
acting, aging, female friendship, and time

     I’ve wanted to see Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas, because it stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz, three of the more intriguing actresses working in film today. It also sounds like a re-take on other films about actresses (All About Eve) and power-play games in intimate female relationships (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Mulholland Drive).  It’s less over-the-top than Eve, lighter than Petra von Kant and clearer than Mulholland.  It’s easier to watch than write about because, as Neil said, “they made something complicated about something that was pretty simple.”

     To keep it simple, a French actress in her forties is offered the part of the older woman in a play that made her famous at eighteen as the younger woman.  A wild child American 
Chloë Grace Moretz
actress has been offered the younger part.  The French actress has a complex friendship with her American personal assistant, who encourages her to take and develop the older female part.  There are a number of interesting elements about the film that are taken on faith and not really explored and yet there’s no reason for this lack of insight:  supposedly, the actress became famous at eighteen, twenty years earlier, in this play, but it makes more sense for it to be thirty years earlier because of Binoche’s actual age; when we see the play at the end, it looks like some awful German work from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that yaks on portentously about relationships, rather than showing them.  Neil saw Glenda Jackson in Great and Small (1983) by Botho Strauss and he’s made fun of it for years because he was pretty convinced no one in the audience knew what was going on.  He said that the set of the play within the movie looked a lot like the Jackson vehicle.  
     
     In the play, the two lead characters are lesbians, but the movie actress explicitly states that she and her assistant are not.  That relates to period:  nowadays, a movie can feature two women in a relationship that is not sexual; even a major writer of the ‘70s such as the fictional one in the movie or director Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have found that not compelling enough and so created the characters as lesbians.  There’s more than a hint of lesbianism in subtext of All About Eve and Mulholland Drive

     What has been talked about is the art reflecting life and vice versa nature of the movie. The American assistant and the French actress speak about the play they’re working on both as professionals, but also as highly intelligent readers.  Neil thought the assistant said she was an actress at the beginning of the movie.  I was hoping she wasn’t since she seemed like the character with the most common sense.  In some ways, she came across as a director.  There are a couple of instances when the women are rehearsing where they seem to go in and out of the play and back to the movie characters.  The younger American performer doesn’t strip for a outdoor bathing scene whereas the older French performer does so with abandon.  The most upsetting element is when a major character disappears about three quarters of the way into the movie and is never mentioned again.  However, it makes sense for the final stage performance to be able to be realized at the end.

Stewart and Binoche
     None of this would be possible without the unfussy yet vulnerable nature of Binoche’s acting style and the liquid, completely natural performance by Stewart.  Both were nominated for César Awards – Stewart was the first American actress to win one.  Moretz channels a number of young Hollywood starlets with promising talent that go wrong and are over-publicized in the media.  Many of the scenes between Binoche and Stewart feel as if they’ve been thought through, but not rehearsed so that they occur casually, while the emotional resonances ricochet later.  Everything is laid out in the first three minutes about what’s going on with the actress, but it’s only after the movie is over that a viewer may be able to piece together what may be going on with the assistant.  There are many suggestions both in the script and in Stewart’s performance, but nothing is underlined.  That’s a simultaneously frustrating yet masterful stroke.

    Like the geological phenomenon to which the title refers, the physical landscape both reflects and overpowers the intellectual and artistic posturing of the characters.  It’s also a slow-moving event that can then vanish in moments.  The movie feels like that as well.  It feels long, though it is always interesting.  The only downside was the dreary classical music that figures in a number of scenes.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Outside Mullingar at Ensemble

The charm of Irish blarney

     Ensemble Theatre’s production of Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck) takes us back to the glory days of the Playhouse in the Park when Ed Stern ran it and, lo and behold, he directs this with verve and discretion.  It’s a charming play that will be a deserved big hit for Ensemble and a fine way to cap the season.  What makes it shine is the extraordinary cast.

Dale Hodges and Joneal Joplin*
     Joneal Joplin and Dale Hodges give a master class in taking what could have been stock types (the grumpy father and the gossipy neighbor, respectively) and embodying more fully rounded characters by presenting their inner lives through specific, detailed vocal and physical gesture.  Both have been great on regional stages for decades and they display yet again what talented pros they are.  Acting students could do themselves a favor by experiencing first hand in an evening what they might pick up in a semester of classes.  

Jen Joplin and Brian Isaac Phillips*
     Jen Joplin has the courage to play an emotionally guarded – even withdrawn – woman without ever commenting as a performer.  Instead, she buries herself in the part.  Brian Isaac Phillips shape shifts in this role as a middle-aged man who’s given up his life for his father and may not inherit the farm that’s rightfully his.  Phillips seems to shrink before the eyes of those who’ve seen him in other shows.  There’s a reason for the character’s self-abnegation and it’s startling, but Phillips makes it plausible from his first entrance.  The final scene between Phillips and Jen Joplin works as an epiphany and it’s heartwarming for the audience. 

     One of the characters says that it’s the middle that’s the best thing in life.  In Outside Mullingar, the strongest elements of the script happen to be the first and final scenes.  While beautifully acted and directed, there’s a scene where we first see the two younger characters together that doesn’t really go anywhere.  I guess there wasn’t a dramaturge, director, or artistic director that questioned Shanley about it in the first production.  I wish the scene had either a clearer point or was about five minutes shorter and had been added to the end.  The other issue is that the father is gruff for so long that he seems perverse.  There’s a reason for it, but he refuses to talk about it until the son reveals it much later.  I wish it could have been more than suggested earlier and set up the whimsical, idiosyncratic relationship between the younger characters earlier.  Shanley didn’t wait until the last ten minutes of Moonstruck to set up the relationship between Cher and Nicolas Cage.

     Guest designer Joseph R. Tilford’s interior sets contrast well and look very authentic.  The looming surround walls, though, feel like a deep dungeon as if they were awaiting Man of La Mancha.  I wasn’t sure of the intention when it’s the overcast, exterior pastoral setting to which the characters most fully respond.  Brian c. Mehring does a great job with the lighting (as usual), though I wish the final light cue, which acts as a sight gag, hadn’t been so instantaneous.

Outside Mullingar runs through May 30, 2015.
*Photos from ETC website
ensemblecincinnati.org

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Saturday Breakfast at the Greyhound Tavern

A special Southern breakfast menu 
appropriate for a casual weekend day

      Sunday brunches have been plentiful since the '70s, but a special Saturday breakfast is a bit of a challenge to find.  We had planned a celebration day for Lisa's birthday that included a day trip to Louisville.  To start off the day, we found a perfect Saturday breakfast menu filled with traditional Southern offerings at the Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell.

Veggie Omelette Breakfast
      Lisa went straight for the traditional Veggie Omelette brimming with fresh spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions with a side of fried potatoes, fruit salad and a light biscuit fresh from the oven.  Traditional done well.  I had toyed with the Breakfast Brown (a take on the Kentucky Hot Brown) with sausage gravy covering warm biscuits, scrambled eggs, sausage links, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and
Chicken and Waffes
Applewood bacon.  Reading through all of that, it seemed a bit heavy to start a day trip outing so Eric and I both opted for a Southern classic—Chicken and Waffles.  Greyhound Tavern is pretty well-known around this area for their Fried Chicken so it seemed a great chance to experience it again.  It really was a great pairing of crispy coated white chicken with a Belgian waffle batter that had a nice sweetness to balance with the protein.  All topped with a scoop of whipped butter and cream, sprinkled with powdered sugar.  It didn't really need the maple syrup.  We found our accompanying cholce of cheesy grits to be on the stiff side.  For those planning a more leisurely outing, there were signature Bottomless Brunch Cocktails offered.

The Greyhound's Main Dining Rooms
      We've partaken of Greyhound's Sunday Brunch a few times and found it always a thorough spread of breakfast and salad items, along with meat and seafood.  But for a more casual Saturday, this was a memorable birthday outing.


Greyhound Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Ruth Rendell 1930 - 2015

Farewell to a Great

Ruth Rendell
     Ruth Rendell, who we’ve featured in the past, died Saturday after suffering a stroke in January.  She was extraordinarily prolific, publishing over 60 books in fifty years under both her name and her pseudonym Barbara Vine, and remarkably consistent in terms of quality.  P.D. James died last year so both of the top British female mystery writers of their generation have gone.

     Rendell was way ahead of her time in presenting societal changes in England after World War II.  In fact, her first novel From Doon with Death (1964), hinges on a murder committed because of an earlier love relationship.  I don’t want to say more since it would give away the plot, but the detectives have to get past their pre-conceived notions about gender before successfully solving the case.  Rendell featured a major character in one of her books that happened to be transgender; that book was written in the early 1970s.  She tackled domestic abuse, international slavery, a variety of ethnic characters, re-interpretations of personal and family history, among many other issues.  

     Rendell was an ardent supporter, both as a mentor and patron, of many younger writers, most prominently Jeanette Winterson.  She was involved prominently in many charities concerning children and young women both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  She was a life peer as the Baroness of Babergh and sat on the Labour side of the House of Lords.  

    Her final book will be published in October.  I’m already looking forward to it, though it’s a terrible shame there won’t be more.  However, it’s been a wonderful ride reading her books over the past thirty years.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Rachel Kushner: Telex from Cuba

Worth savoring for this historical novelist 
of grace, intelligence, and style

     I wanted to read Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba (2008) after I’d liked her The Flamethrowers (2013) so much.  I thought it was one of the best novels I’d read in the past decade.  She writes big, taking on a subject, its era and locale, and then goes one step further to place it in an international context.  She did this with the art world of the 1970s centered in New York City before linking it to the American political radicalism of the 1960s and the European radicalism of the 1970s in Flamethrowers.  In Telex, she recreates the American expatriate (or should I say late colonial) experience in Cuba during the 1950s from the waning presidency of Prio through the revolutionary ascendancy of Castro.

     It’s a lot to bite off, especially in a novel that isn’t saga length (322 pages in the Scribner paperback edition).  She uses multiple narrators in first person and third person limited omniscience so that the reader connects to specific parts of the story, rather than a grand, sweeping overview of history with an omniscient third person narrator.  Because of this method, she then links the main events in the politically unsettled Cuba to a French agent provocateur that collaborated with the Nazis at the end of World War II and the eventual fate of many of the characters more than forty years after the overthrow of Batista.  

President Carlos Prio of Cuba
     Kushner never backs off from showing that ‘American economic interests’ superseded the working and living conditions for many Cubans, which was a primary reason behind Castro’s revolution.  The representative of those interests – American business and governmental – played all sides of the game with Batista, Castro, and, to a much lesser extent, Prio in order to retain power.  She also shows the American class system at work in the United Fruit Company – the main supplier of sugar harvested from cane – in the Oriente Province.  The east coast and Midwestern college-educated administer the business for ‘the interests’, while the southern cracker with the incredibly energetic and entertaining family acts as an updated plantation overseer.

The United Fruit Company
     She’s able to create compelling characters in a couple of scenes, from the various Americans to a Cuban dancer-prostitute that seems to work for all sides to the Cuban and Jamaican servants.  It’s an ensemble piece, even though it seems like will be a coming of age story for the ‘tween-adolescent K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer (he narrates at times, while Kushner seems to identify with Everly, even though she keeps her at a limited omniscient distance). 
Many of the secondary characters, such as the Carrington family members, are intriguing, but none of the characters is as electrifying as the protagonist of Flamethrowers.   She’s gutsy, though, in introducing Fidel Castro in a scene that’s extremely unexpected and bizarrely adult.  




     Where I think Kushner has to be reckoned a major (and potentially great) writer is in her style.  It’s the golden literary arrow in her quiver.  It’s elegant, seductive, and sometimes more informative than it may first appear.  She sets out the main themes of the novel in her first paragraph when the seven-year old Everly sails toward Cuba with her family in 1952:

There it was on the globe, a dashed line of darker blue on the lighter blue Atlantic. Words in faint italic script:  Tropic of Cancer.  The adults told her to stop asking what it was, as if the dull reply they gave would satisfy:  “A latitude, in this case twenty-three and a half degrees.”  She pictured daisy chains of seaweed stretching across the water toward a distant horizon.  On the globe were different shades of blue wrapping around the continent in layers.  But how could there be geographical zones in the sea, which belongs to no country?  Divisions on a surface that is indifferent to rain, to borders, that can hold no object in place?

     The major themes of the novel such as class and economic disenfranchisement, the capriciousness of geopolitical needs as they relate to personal intimate relationships, and the concept of home versus dislocation are apparent in that paragraph once I’d read the whole thing.  Kushner’s style and subject remind me of Shirley Hazzard, an acclaimed and award-winning writer who’s been around for forty-five years and takes a while between finishing her extraordinary works, who also deserves a much wider readership.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bravo Cucina Italiana at Rookwood

Notable Italian cuisine 
and service at a moderate price

The Bravo Cucina Italiana Dining Room
      Dining at new restaurants in their infancy can be a dicey situation.  When we received an invitation to join the new Bravo at Rookwood for a gratis dining adventure during one of their training sessions, we promptly accepted.  Who wouldn't?  We tossed our hesitancy aside and slid into one of their comfortable booths in the open dining area decorated in a grand Italian-type manner with rich woods and bright warm accents.

Calamari Fritti


      From the Appetizer Menu came the chef's choice of Calamari Fritti.  Served with creamy horseradish and pomodoro sauce, the calamari was tender throughout with a seasoned and light batter.  We found the horseradish sauce particularly nice and felt this dish would hold up to fine dining standards.  It's reminiscent of Brio's version, which is another brand also owned by the same company.

Soup and Brussels Sprout & Almond Salad
      It was our choice from the Soup & Salads Menu.  Eric chose the Italian Wedding Soup served in a tureen with a lovely thick broth.  I went with the Brussels Sprout & Almond Salad at the recommendation of our server.  The mixed greens with shaved Brussels sprouts, candied almonds and Parmesan worked well together with a lemon garlic vinaigrette.  We felt this was a must dish at Bravo.  

Eggplant Parmesan
      Again, we chose from the Chef Specialties.  Eric loves eggplant and I do not.  He typically orders it when on a menu and found the Eggplant Parmesan there.  Two large, breaded "filets" were served atop a bed of linguine and topped traditionally with mozzarella.  It was like having perfectly cooked fish and was an idiosyncratic way to prepare it.  

Grilled Tilapia with Crab & Shrimp
I wanted something lighter, ordering the Grilled Tilapia with Crab & Shrimp.  Wonderfully seasoned with a slightly spicy rub, the crab and shrimp were diced and mixed in a cream sauce on top.  The seasonal vegetables were sautéed excellence.

Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding



      It was server's choice for the dessert and we were hoping it would not be a bread pudding.  Ding, ding, ding!  The spin of the wheel landed on the dessert of the day—Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding.  Like a warm molten cake, it was accompanied with vanilla bean gelato and caramel sauce.  When done well, even overrated concoctions can win one over.

      We would have never guessed that this was a pre-opening dining experience.  It appears everything was operating on all cylinders and ready for a long run.  

Bravo Cucina Italiana on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mad Men: 6 more episodes and already it’s “Uh-oh”

We hope its best days aren’t behind a TV classic

     Yes, we’ve praised Mad Men up one season and generally up even more the next.  I wasn’t certain about season 6 since it got off to a rocky start until “The Crash” episode.  The second half of the last season just started and a tiny wretched crack of the English language showed up and in an episode written by no less than series creator Matthew Weiner.  One of Peggy’s copywriters was trying to fix her up with his wife’s brother.  I cannot remember the line exactly, but it went something like this as he explained the situation to another employee, “Peggy is having dinner with my wife and I.”  Neil and I were stunned.

     People don’t make this mistake when it’s a singular object such as “Peggy is having dinner with me.”  It only happens when it’s a plural object where the proper names are used.  Perhaps this reflects an almost narcissistic regard on the level of the royal ‘we’ from Americans nowadays.  As Neil says, “It’s big I, little you.”  Mad Men has never been about the post-Millennial self-regard – practically self-obsession – of the current culture.  Instead, it’s been about an ambitious, ascendant culture coming out of the superficially optimistic Eisenhower years and moving through to the shame or expediency, depending on your point of view, of Watergate.  The most attractive aspect to me about Mad Men has been its literacy.  What a shame that Weiner couldn’t be bothered about such an important element as the show nears its close.

John Hamm as Don Draper 
     That disappointment aside, it seems pretty clear that there will not be a transcendent moment for Don Draper.  His best years may be behind him in forging a new identity and life for himself before the first episode and then in his gorgeous control of narrative through the theme of nostalgia at the end of season 1 in “The Wheel,” which was about the Kodak slide carousel.  
"It's Not Called the Wheel,
It's the Carousel"—Don Draper
Peggy Olson, Don’s secretary then protégée then colleague, had a moment of potential romantic transcendence that was thrown because she didn’t realize she’d left her passport at the office.  The job always comes first with Peggy.  She may disparage Joan Harris, but she hasn’t had to balance family obligations and sexual entanglements with a professional life to the same degree, though she doesn’t know this.  The best episode of the series came about half way through in “The Suitcase” during season 4 because it most fully examined the complex ties between Don and Peggy, which is the most important relationship.

Peggy Olson and Don Draper
    I hate to think that the complacency of the educated, suburban, white men that make up most of the characters has seeped into the creators’ practice.  The improper English aside, the episode began with yet another example of the rampant sexism redolent of the era.  I was hoping we’d move a little beyond that or that it could show up later, but unfortunately not.  Whether we see further examples of the racism and homophobia it’s dealt with in the past remains to 
Watching the 1969
Landing on the Moon 
be seen.  One of the ironies of Mad Men, which also seems extraordinarily pragmatic, is that although the characters spend their professional lives presenting gleaming, manicured surfaces to sell the American Dream, they possess very little connection to what was happening historically and what eventually moved the culture in a different direction, even as that direction has been re-navigated over the last four decades.