How to edit hallucinations: ‘Mad Men’

Mad Men Jet Set

You know how these hallucinations play out. A character sees a friend from afar (in a desert?) until they get close enough to see it’s just a reflection, an irritated airplane passenger or some fugly Joe.

Though more often, it’s an upset character who sees someone who shouldn’t be there or is dead. And so a pursuit begins, ending with our character reaching their loved/lost one to find it’s only a lookalike.

This was a common scheme in shows like “LOST” where dead people were never really dead or in “Battlestar Galactica” where everyone was suspect of being a Cylon, especially if they had died earlier in the show.

It’s a trick used often with this basic formula:

Shot 1: Our character startled to see…

Shot 2: Character POV (seeing the hallucinated subject at a quarter turn giving the impression of a familiar face)

Shot 3: Our character Looking

Usually depending on the genre you’re watching, the formula advances in one of the following ways:

Shot 4a: Character POV (hallucinated subject moves, often in an opposite direction from our character thus prompting a chase—that ends with character grabbing the arm of the hallucinated subject to find it’s only a lookalike)

Or it’s…

Shot 4b: Character POV (hallucinated subject in close-up, revealing it’s only a lookalike)

Either way, the sequence is edited in an Expectation – Surprise order.  Most of the time, especially if Our Character is grieving, the point is to show us how distraught he/she is that they would hallucinate their loved/lost one.

Which brings us to “Mad Men,” particularly “The Jet Set” episode in late Season Two where Don Draper flies out to Los Angeles for a convention after a tiff with his wife, Betty.

The Scene: It’s where Don walks into a cafe/bar, where he first meets Joy, that we get proof “Mad Men” is one of the most cleverly edited TV shows.

Shot 1: Medium shot of Don passing tables and approaching the bar

Shot 2: Cafe patrons walk in and out of frame, obstructing the foreground, and in the background, Don sees Betty in a blue dress at a quarter turn sitting at the bar

Shot 3: Don frowning, staring

Shot 4: It’s not Betty, just a blonde lookalike in the blue dress. She stands from her bar stool to walk away.

Shot 5: Don walking forward

And it’s the next shot that sets “Mad Men” apart from the rest.

Shot 6: It’s Betty, surprisingly. They walk past each other.

Then in the background, we can see it’s non-Betty again.

As discussed above, most other shows would let it stand with Don simply confusing his wife with someone else, dispelling his hallucination after the first reveal.

But that’s not what happens here.  You could say that allowing the hallucinated subject and the lookalike to swap places in a scene makes Our Character’s confusion the focus.  Yes, Our Character is so emotionally compromised they confused a familiar face with an unknown one, but letting the hallucination continue in the scene after the first reveal is a more poignant comment on the extent of Our Character’s emotional state.

Though that’s only part of what’s going on here in “Mad Men.”  The other half of this scene’s payoff is in letting the audience know how far away Don is—that whether the hallucinated subject was actually Betty or not, Don walks past her and doesn’t pursue.

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