Mad Men hit big this week with “Hands and Knees,” Episode 410, thanks to the last director you’d ever expect: Seattle’s Lynn Shelton, 45, a TV debutante and micro-indie autodidact who never went to film school. A stage actor from 11 to twentysomething, Shelton won Slamdance at 41 with her theatre satire and chick flick We Go Way Back. Todd Haynes and Ira Glass became fans. So did Mad Men main man Matt Weiner, who hired her the same day her Mike Leigh-style (and Judd Apatow-like) improvised 2009 bromance Humpday won an Indie Spirit Award. “I just couldn’t believe my luck,” says Shelton. “I went around for two entire months with a gigantic goofy smile on my face, hugging anyone who would let me.”
What Shelton brings to Weiner’s vision is an actor’s rapport with actors and an expert editor’s sense of the magic moment (one big Shelton influence is Walter Murch). She’s disappointed that Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is absent from the episode, because Peggy’s a rebel against what Shelton calls “the geisha years” – the twenties, which Shelton thinks women waste pleasing men. (Her film company is called Geisha Years, LLC.)
SPOILER ALERT: But she gives us some of the deepest peeks yet into trickier, more remote characters than recovering geisha Peggy. Don’s Korean War identity-theft sometimes comes off like one of Weiner’s unproduced, unrelated prior screenplays that got incorporated into the ‘60s ad-man show (because it is). But Shelton totally helps sell it. When Feds seem about to stumble on Don’s secret, Betty’s cigarette jitters and Don’s full-on panic attack are wholly emotionally arresting in a way we haven’t often seen in TV’s most meticulously mannered masterpiece. Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) can be stiff little figurines on a poisoned wedding cake; Shelton peels back the impeccable carapace of beauty and makes them dance the herky-jerky.
In older episodes, the affair of Roger (John Slattery, another actor who sometimes directs Mad Men) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) is seen with a cold eye, but “Hands and Knees” warms it up. He’s still an entitled exploitative asshole, but now you see a scintilla of what she sees in him, the remains of the swain beneath the swine. Shelton filmed one of cinema’s great, sensitively authentic date-rape scenes in the autobiographical We Go Way Back; nobody has induced (or allowed?) Hendricks to dive deeper into Joan’s manipulated heart, tough as a 12-minute egg (yet defiantly warm within). It’s not a date rape here – Joan runs the shows Joan’s in -- but the ambiguous power plays are emotionally persuasive. The freighted encounters in the abortion clinic and Roger’s office after make the cocktail-crossed lovers more touching than ever.
She also spent a month watching Phil Abraham make Episode 408, “The Summer Man.” “A plethora of firsts for me: first time working in LA, on a sound stage, with a union crew, with famous actors, with a cast and crew that I hadn’t handpicked myself, fulfilling someone else’s vision.”
It’s all subtle, superb stuff. In flagrante in Don’s sin den, research queen Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) was a cool customer -- even her gutteral orgasmic grunts are classy as a Choate Latin lesson. “Hands and Knees” humanizes the brittle not-a-real-doctor Faye, as she hears Don’s rhythmic panic retching, which echoes her earlier orgasms in the same room, only not so classy. Vomiting Don sounds like he’s saying “Nachtmare,” which denotes a nightmare so scary it’s in German. Not Faye’s style to be not under control – so we glimpse a new Faye, starting to lose it.
And talk about a new Lane (Jared Harris)! Caned to submission by his vile, Noah Crosslike Brit prig papa for loving a “chocolate bunny” from Hef’s fetishistically recreated Playboy Club, Lane assumes the hands and knees position of the title – the last guy you’d expect to see humbled by erotic and filial love. To perfect that moment, maybe it took the last director you’d expect.END OF SPOILER ALERT
Next for Shelton: “The web series I wrote and directed for MTV.com, $5 Cover Seattle, is set to launch later this fall and I am set to direct a project Anne Carey and Ted Hope brought to me (Then We Came to the End, based on the Josh Ferris novel).” Focus Features produces the dotcom-era ad-agency drama.
“All of these new experiences added up to me gaining a huge amount of knowledge and confidence as a director,” says Shelton. But when I ask if auteurist TV is not the new natural habitat of indie filmmakers, she demurs. “Hmm. It seems to me like they are very different animals. I hope to live in both worlds if I can, at least to a certain degree, but I don't see myself throwing over film for TV.”
Still, if anybody from Mad Men calls about more episodes or a movie using her new Mad Men friends, Shelton has no plans to slam down the phone like Don Draper with a hangover.