So, Mad Men.
What’s it about? A bunch of rich advertising executives in the 60’s in New York. On the one hand, at least it’s not about four quirky people in a quirky living arrangement. Hooray for that. On the other hand, why do we care? It’s a bunch of stressed out, selfish alcoholics all gunning at each other in a work environment so toxic women take turns falling apart in the bathroom and every guy has a liquor cabinet in their office in need of replenishing.
So why watch it? It’s not an easy watch. I have at least three friends, friends whose media advice I trust (or know how much to trust) give up on it after half a dozen episodes, sometimes more. There are no heroes – no white hats or black hats, they’re all gray. If someone does something noble, you can bet in the next episode or two they’ll do something vile to bring them back to level.
So again, why watch? Because it’s like watching a novel. Because it’s nice to watch a show where it’s clear, no matter what their intentions are, that the people making the show know what they’re doing and know how to do it. That even if they’re going to depress the crap out of you, they’ll do it with style and invention that it will be better than anything else you watched on TV that week. Because the characters on the show will seem real, depressingly sometimes. Because it’s so well shot. SO well shot.
Because the writing is acute, intensely researched, personal, and unpredictable, on a season, episode, scene, and beat level. Both overall and from scene-to-scene, I consistently guessed wrong what would happen, which event would be focused on and how it would be taken by the characters. Notice how the reveal for key information never comes out how or when you think it will. One character’s key revelation about their past is done in a way to not only give them great depths but show that they are stronger and more resourceful than we thought, and go beyond the reveal itself. Another comes too late to save a relationship, and instead of a hug there’s a friendly pat on the back. Even if people’s reactions to situations are predictable, their actual words are never what you think they will be. Events, like weddings, births, deaths, are portrayed as the game-changers they are, though sometimes not initially, but again usually not in the way we think they will be. A wedding may appear to be a great thing and fall on it’s head immediately, and another has legs we didn’t think would be there. We feel like we’re wandering around chaotic, smart, real people’s lives. We’re treated to most of the chaos and some of the joys.
Notice how the work environment’s toxicity keeps us interested for a while, and eases off when other storylines get interesting. Notice how characters are pretty normal. Peggy is introduced, not as an innocent, but naive. She’s fine with learning how things work and doing what has to be done to move up the ranks, whether they’re moral or not, she’s just not sure what they are, and they keep changing. Notice how Pete Cambpell can tantrum any situation – ANYTHING – into a personal attack on his career, and still be loyal to the firm and perform well. Notice how nothing gets to Ken. Notice how pretty much everything gets to Kinsey.
Notice Don devolve. This is one place the show has it’s cake and eats it too. He’s the hub of the show, and his mystery slowly unravels, somewhat unremarkably at some points, but his current status contrasted with his mysterious background works on multiple levels – anyone can make it in America, he deserves to be where he is, he works harder than anyone else in the firm so he deserves succcess, no matter his other faults. We get some pleasure out of watching someone who hasn’t wised up do a nosedive. Ha ha, we think. You’re gonna tank. And then he avoids it. But he should nosedive. To be clinical about it, Don dampens the pain of a high-pressure work environment, an unfulfilling marriage, and a past he’s so deeply ashamed of it sends him into a helpless spiral every time it’s exposed by being an alcoholic sex addict who works too much. He’s the most clear case of a shame-based personality I’ve seen on popular TV. It’s a miracle he’s watchable – but he is, not just because he can hold liquor, is handsome and can bed every woman who comes within ten feet of him (it’s like they’re all getting instructions from a male fantasy), but because he works hard, is successful and considered a local rainmaker, and is mysterious. So on the other hand, to be romantic about it, Don is a handsome, mysterious, successful man with a painful past just waiting to be healed up by some woman’s love and encouragement. Both of these sides – a rehab patient waiting to happen and a romance novel suit – are played up or dampened according to some metronome in the creator, Matt Weiner’s, head. Watching Don is like gambling – some percentage of the time he does something noble that upsets people, and the rest of the time he’s a schmuck. Not just a schmuck – he does one or two seriously repugnant things. We keep waiting for the noble.
Which leads to another reason to watch the show. It’s a tutorial in character development. Watch the first episode, then imagine a show in which in the fourth season you’d actually be voting his wife off the island. And Don hasn’t gotten any better. Notice how they do it. *Spoilers ahead* First, they turn his wife from a model of love and domesticy into a shrew, and do so in a way that makes her devolve in reaction to hisactions and external situations. We are only watching this part of their life together, not the good earlier years. Second, they give her no backstory. Don has great depths – if we had a few scenes of a past where she seemed likeable – outgoing, kind, generous, hard-working, our heart would go out to her and not to Don – but instead she is priveledged, shallow, and vapid, from what we gather, since we don’t get her backstory. She’s probably the biggest casualty in terms of character development, likely to keep some shine on Don. Third, if Betty is not the Black Sheep in the episode, someone else, is. If Don does something stupid, someone else does something worse. He doesn’t stay the bad guy for too long. Fourth, they give him increasing responsibility for others. Even if we want him to fail, his failure will hurt others who we sympathize with and don’t seem to run into unicorns and rainbow dust like he seems to. Fifth, he’s a caring father. He doesn’t hit his kids, he seems to genuinely love them (again the contrast here with Betty is striking). He is handsome (lines by everyone else are used to reinforce this). He is mysterious and wounded – he won’t let anyone close, he needs unraveled. He is sporadically ethical.
That’s part of the dare that Mad Men makes with viewers. It dares you to drop it. It messes with you. This is remarkable, even if it’s frustating as a viewer. In an age where many shows struggle to appear competent or even watchable, it has layers, characters whose big moment comes half-way through the third season, huge issues like abortion, adultery, alcoholism, domestic abuse, rape, suicide, racism, masculinity and sexism that it addresses matter-of-factly, sometimes chillingly, and eventually with a heavy dose of reality, on a TV channel that doens’t allow graphic nudity, swearing, or gore.
One scene in Mad Men typifies the way it gets away with having a show about adult concepts and showing them without being graphic. Near the end of “For Those Who Think Young” (S2E1) Don gets into an elevator and listens to a graphic conversation between two guys about one of their recent conquests. They talk in code – the equivalent of adults spelling out words to each other – but if you know what they’re talking about, it’s pretty nasty and innapropriate for the elevator they share with 50’ish woman. Don tells one of them, “Take your hat off” – there’s a woman present – and takes it off for him. It shows two things – they can talk about stuff without showing it because they know what to include and what to leave out. It also shows how no one says what they mean – Don could have just said shut up. Instead he went around it, and go the same result.
It uses the overpropriety of the time as a theme. Very rarely do people say what they actually mean. The distance between what’s said and what is meant is sometimes a mile wide. Sometimes diametrically opposed, particularly at home and with Betty. For example:
Structurally, this politeness tension is a great mechanism because after a while we’re hungry for someone to tell it like it is. Don, especially, hides his feelings, which works on many levels – when he finally shares them it’s a payoff for us for hanging on so long, and it’s a sign of growth for the character as well. It rewards close attention, and sometimes punishes the viewer for it, when characters are cruel to each other and it’s like listening in to a quiet song with a blaring chorus.
In the end Mad Men is a show I admire the crud out of. I don’t know that I’d throw it in on a rainy day – it’s not comfort food – although I found myself watching long segments looking for those images. It’s a challenge to viewers, but it’s trying something new, is meticuously self-consistent and well-written, is well-thought out, and compelling. It deserves the praise it gets, but it’s not for everyone.