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Even so, it was riveting television in last week’s episode when Joan gave Greg his walking papers.
It happened at breakfast. Here’s the scene:
Joan: I've been thinking about it and I want you to go.
Joan’s mom (who’s visiting): I’ll put this away.
She exits with the coffee pot.
Greg: I’m glad you came around. It’s only a year.
Joan: No. I want you to go and never come back.
Greg: Damn Joannie. They need me.
Joan: Well then, it works out. Because we don’t.
Greg: I’m very important there. I have 20 doctors and medics who rely on me. They look to me for my skilled leadership.
Joan: I’m glad the army makes you feel like a man. Because I’m sick of trying to do it.
Greg: The army makes me feel like a good man.
Joan: You’re not a good man. You never were, even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.
Greg: If I walk out that door, that’s it.
Joan: That’s it.
Greg walks out the door.
Joan’s mother reappears with the coffee pot.
Joan: It’s over.
This powerful confrontation lasted 86 seconds from start to finish, and ended as such scenes usually end on television, with the more disposable character taking a powder. Millions of men and women who remember old relationships grinding to a halt in a spasm of hopeless conversations that kept them up all night must have watched with dumbfounded envy.
But of course the scene wasn’t reality, it was an abstracted simulation, and it made no difference to me that it was literally unbelievable. Something else I didn’t think of at the time but wondered about later was why Joan had no idea until Greg came home that he'd decided to re-up. In real life, a separated newlywed like Greg would have been writing his wife long letters for months that agonized over his mounting desire to stay at his post.
But whatever. I wouldn’t say a word against AMC's Mad Men except that the following night, on NBC’s Smash, a show whose tires lately have been throwing up a few too many cinders, John walked out on Tom (at breakfast) in 80 seconds and then Dev walked out on Karen in 69. One walkout per week per show seems like a generous quota to me, and on Smash this was the third in two weeks. (The week before, Frank had walked out on Julia in 67 seconds.) Art can push its luck, and when TV falls back on the same contrivance once too often not only does the guilty show suffer but also every other show those viewers watch.Velasquezes was closed for renovations, and as it was unthinkable not to show them at all, they’d been hung out in the hallway. The lighting was harsh, the spacing was cramped, the noise and bustle of the corridor were distracting. There was no spell. The priceless oils vanished. All I could see was paint. The Goyas in another part of the museum were still hung decently enough but they suffered too; that's because one of the Prado's great pleasures was denied us—proceeding through time a century and a half to Goya from Velasquez.
Not that I put Smash and Mad Men in the same company as those guys. Well, I guess I do. Art at every level is about conveying much with little. It's about illusions the audience gladly conspires in. But sometimes the bubble bursts, and there you are.