Matthew Weiner, 2007–
I recognize that it is weird to do a writeup of this after season five, given that, as I understand it, the show is slated to run for seven seasons; it'd seem like the sensible thing would be either to review each season as it aired or else wait until the whole thing was done. But I wound up having to familiarize myself with the series as research for a possible future writing gig, and in any event, it was starting to seem like a working knowledge of the show was being taken as a given in everything I read. Movie reviews, political articles, even sports stories were all dropping references to Mad Men characters as if they needed no more explanation than references to Homer Simpson or the Fonz. So I watched 65 episodes in 56 days, and I figured I'd better write my article while I still remember something about them.
I have some critical things to say, but before I get to them, let me state for the record that this is exactly the sort of narrative I like best. Mad Men begins in 1960, introducing us to a bunch of people who work at a New York ad agency and then to their families. About a month elapses between episodes, so by the end of the fifth season we have followed these people's lives well into 1967. The show embodies both Pattern 24 and Pattern 25: the storylines are deeply rooted in the events and trends of the 1960s, and the show is to a great extent an exercise in immersing the audience in the culture of half a century ago. This is one of the charges I saw leveled at the show from time to time before I started watching it; for instance, I recall someone (Matthew Amster-Burton, I want to say?) posting something to the effect of, "Yes, I get it — pregnant women smoked like chimneys, businessmen started drinking in their offices at 10 a.m. and were sloshed by lunchtime, little kids played in dry-cleaning bags and their mothers didn't bat an eye… is there anything more to the show than this?" Even the casual references to the show I mentioned above have tended to use Mad Men as shorthand for "the world of a couple of generations ago, when racism and especially sexism were blatant and mainstream." But the key thing is that the characters aren't just there to flesh out the world of the story. They're as fully realized as any set of characters I've ever seen, and the show is simultaneously about timeless questions — how to find happiness, why it always dances out of reach — and about how the way people think about those questions is shaped by time and place.
So, yes — as a history buff, I thought this was great. As someone who likes depth of characterization and thematic weight, I again give it a thumbs up. Though the humor is occasionally overbroad, there were many sly touches that I found very funny. And let me throw one more big plus onto the pile: much as I hate advertising, I love creative problem-solving, and it's often fascinating to watch the characters tossing around ideas for campaigns, finding a promising angle, refining it, implementing it… very similar to what goes on in the story conferences, no doubt. Nor is that the only place such problem-solving comes into play. One of my favorite episodes was the season three finale, as the principals at Sterling Cooper try to figure out how to extricate themselves from the company before it's bought out — it's a very enjoyable caper. And as I mentioned in last year's writeup of the first season of Game of Thrones, it is compelling to watch the women of this world try to leverage what little power they have in a male-dominated culture.
On to the negative. Structurally, Mad Men is a bit weird. Continuity from one episode to the next is often lacking. Yes, often a month or more passes between episodes, and yes, it's apparent that the creators have tried to make episodes at least partially self-contained, like short movies, rather than mere installments in an overarching storyline. But the series as a whole feels like the product of a chain writing exercise. "All right! My turn at the helm! Let's see, I think I'll spend this episode doing a long setup of this shift in the status quo!" And then the next writer takes over and says, "Hmm, nah," and drops that thread. This tendency has far-reaching effects.
I used to start off these Calendar articles by quickly laying out the premise of the work I was discussing. For instance, I might have said, Premise: A man from an impoverished background, hungry to rise in the world, erases his backward past, adopts a new identity, and quickly mananges to ensconce himself as a fast-rising mid-level executive at a corporation awash in adultery and alcoholism. He makes power plays, fends off those of his rivals… and sleeps in a big cardboard box. His name is Jim Profit, and he's a monster.
What? Who did you think I was talking about?
Now, Profit wasn't especially deep. It was basically about plot mechanics and shock. Each episode was basically a chess game, and the fun of the show came in gasping at the diabolically clever ways Profit found to manipulate those around him and thereby outmaneuver his rivals. So, how do you sustain a show about a villain? In 1996, apparently the answer was "you don't": Profit lasted four episodes before Fox pulled it. But eight episodes were filmed, and they demonstrated a variety of techniques to try to pull this off. One was to take advantage of the fact that audiences generally pull for protagonists to get what they want simply because they are the protagonists. (Breaking Bad spoiler.) Another was to use the trick I swiped for Varicella and pit him against people even more monstrous than he is, so that we cheer as "our monster" gives them what they have coming. But the show never lost sight of the fact that Jim Profit is a monster. One thing that rubs me the wrong way about Mad Men is that it often seems to lose sight of what Don Draper is.
Which isn't to say that Don is a monster, exactly. But look at how the series begins. We meet ad man Don Draper as he is trying to concoct ways to get more people to smoke in the face of reports that tobacco is carcinogenic. He meets up for a tryst with a freelance artist who is, evidently, his girlfriend, and sleeps over at her place. He then meets a businesswoman looking to revamp her department store's image and chews her out for being too outspoken and not knowing her place, then decides that he'd like to fuck her and takes her to dinner so he can lay on the charm. Poor girlfriend, we think… and then Don gets on the train and goes home to his wife and children. All right, so he's an adulterer — that may not be admirable, but it's pretty commonplace. But let's continue. A couple of episodes later, his little daughter has a birthday party, and his wife sends him to the bakery to go get the cake. Which he does — and then drives right past his house out to the railroad tracks to sit and smoke well into the night. Why? Because fuck you, that's why. When he finally does come home, we discover that he's obtained a dog, somehow. And then the next episode trots Don out for an office-politics plot, as if this bizarre display had never happened.
And in fact "this never happened" is Don's mantra. For instance, in season two, Don and a married woman he's been fucking on the side are drunkenly driving out to Stony Brook to have sex on the beach when Don flips the car into a ditch. He calls Peggy Olson, his former secretary who worked her way up to a copywriting position, to pick him and his mistress up at the police station, pay his fine, let the mistress stay in her apartment, and get up early in the morning to pick up the mistress's dry cleaning, all of which Peggy does without complaint, assuring Don that she'll quickly forget all about it. Why? Because she'd been on the other side of a similarly sticky situation: a couple of years earlier, Peggy had disappeared (to give birth, not having realized she was pregnant until told so at the hospital), and Don had urged her, "Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened."
Who know who says things like that? Psychotic people say things like that. Mad Men may be set in the 1960s, but this kind of talk is straight out of 1984, as in George Orwell. Or perhaps out of 2004, when George W. Bush's team was explaining to reporters that "we create our own reality." And, most of the time, the show is disquietingly non-judgmental about Don. He isn't presented as a hero, but the sense I get is that we're supposed to take him as a flawed icon, an emblem of American anomie. And it seems that there's a large segment of the viewership that thinks he's cool. My wardrobe is limited to 21 colors of the same t-shirt, but the googles tell me that since Mad Men came on the air, men's fashions have basically been an exercise in aping whatever Don Draper is wearing. Though fictional, he won an award as the "most influential man of 2009," with an accompanying blurb heralding his "thoroughly masculine" persona, grounded in "old-school values" yet made relatable due to his "human flaws"; apparently he's "an unusually real, earnest human being who illustrates the struggles modern men know all too well." I, on the other hand, think Jimmy Barrett had it right. Barrett is the comedian whose wife is the mistress involved in the car accident. And while he is no peach himself, he sums Don up neatly: "You're garbage."
As those who follow my Calendar articles know, I've been working my way through a long list of books recommended by visitors to my site; as of this writing I've completed eleven of them. Oddly, the one that I find myself thinking about the most is the one that I'd have to say is the worst: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The title character is a haughty martinet whose behavior is completely beyond the pale, ranging as it does from death threats to sexual assault. And yet those around her act as though this is somehow okay. They try to grin their way through it, or make mildly exasperated comments, or just pretend that it's not happening. I'd like to say that this is a sharp-edged portrait of how people have trouble processing unhinged behavior, but the book itself seems to take a similar attitude. Heh heh! That Haruhi is quite a character! The implied author seems not to grasp that the behavior being depicted is sociopathic and criminal; it reads as acquiescence, and that is infuriating.
Now consider the Allison plotline in season four of Mad Men. Allison is Don Draper's loyal, competent secretary. Don, drunk off his ass once again, finds himself locked out of his apartment, having left his keys at the office. He calls Allison from a pay phone and she gives up her own plans in order to bring Don his keys. She gets him settled, and turns to go; Don grabs her, pulls her onto his lap, and forces himself on her, her protest of "don't!" going unheeded until she finally gives in. Allison now thinks that at least she is Don's new mistress; instead, the next day he basically destroys her by treating her like a prostitute, giving her a hundred dollars and thanking her for "bringing my keys" and allowing him to take advantage of her "kindness." And he then promptly shoves the whole affair down his personal memory hole. Weeks later, Allison breaks down, and as Don stands there obliviously going "What?", she tells him, her voice quavering, "This actually happened." She says she's decided to change jobs and asks for a recommendation; Don, thinking he's being magnanimous, says that she can write whatever she wants and he'll sign it. In a heartbreaking moment, Allison stammers through her tears that "I don't say this easily, but you are not a good person!" and flees.
And, sure, it's great to hear a character finally tell Don that he doesn't get to decide what did and didn't happen… but even as the content of the show is making this point, the form seems to disagree. Allison is never heard from again. The impact of this moment is basically non-existent. Future episodes continue to blithely chart Don's life as if he weren't garbage. And, yeah, I dunno. I've discussed in the past how part of our cultural DNA, inherited from Christianity, is a predilection for redemption narratives. Many of us would rather see a heel make good than watch the story of someone who's always tried to do the right thing. And the reviews of Mad Men that I've browsed seem almost desperate in trying to collect moments that allow them to piece together a way to view the show as Don Draper's quest to become a better person. Look at him having an "I am awed by my wonderful family" moment! (As if Tony Soprano didn't have a bunch of those.) But, as I've also mentioned, this sort of thing doesn't really resonate with me at all. As far as I'm concerned, Don ran out of chances long, long ago. Fuck him. He is garbage. I spent the first three seasons of the show actively rooting for his life of lies to fall apart. When it finally did, and he was weeping like his doppelgänger John Boehner, I felt no sympathy — on the contrary, I thought, finally, finally, some justice. Yes, I suppose that I would rather have him become a better person than just fall down an elevator shaft… but not if he tries to frame his redemption in his usual "I'm wiping the slate clean once again! It's an all new me!" kind of way. I want him to spend the rest of his life deeply ashamed of how he treated people in the years before he got his act together. Because those years happened.