As you may know, the fifth season of the AMC series Mad Men has ended on one of those summarizing, meditative melodies often played on these programs. I sighed with mild relief, as I do at the end of every episode.
I resisted Mad Men at first, not adding it to our Netflix cue until 2009. First, I thought it might be one of those hip fashionista things, all pretty surfaces, nothing underneath.
Also, there’s the fact that it’s on AMC (Just “Another Movie Channel: We Know You Don’t Really Care About Movies, You Just Want Them As Background Noise While You Vacuum”; All-week Dirty Harry festivals? Yikes . . . .)
I also feared Mad Men might be one of those static, domestic melodramas I’ve haven’t been a fan of since my Eugene O’Neill days in college. I mostly prefer my stories adventurous, outward looking and risk taking, where mortal violent danger shadows every corner. If I didn’t see KGB agents infiltrating Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or George Smiley or Don Vito Corleone walking through the door with avuncular but sinister smiles, I doubted l would stick with it.
But stuck with it I have, through all five seasons, hot, cold, and lukewarm. Of all the cable series I’ve watched during this unmistakably golden age of television series, it’s the show about which I have the most mixed feelings. I only go “Wow!” from time to time. Sometimes I fidget and check the DVD clock.
But I’ve still been wrong in most of my attitudes. Mad Men is a much more interesting show than I expected. It’s commitment to its art is unshakeable and admirable. Most of the criticism I read—especially the astute comments on Slate’s TV Club—focuses on its lustrous polish and shine, sharp, nuanced performances, tart characterizations, interior set design, costumes, the undercurrents of its weaving plots and the window it opens on its era.
Because many of its viewers are young (unlike me), the show’s noble antecedents are often missed (though they’re not by the show’s creators, as the excellent DVD extras show). Mad Men, for all the fuss about its “radicalism” is a throwback to the early “golden” days of television, of high-minded dramas like The Defenders, Naked City, and East Side/West Side. Sober-minded and as realistic as possible, these dramas were themselves rooted in the serious live theatre of that era.
Many of the same issues which Mad Men dramatizes were dramatized on these shows: both Naked City and The Defenders dealt with themes like abortion, drug addiction, class, and even race and gender, though censorship often forced them to be very circumspect. Both shows delivered stark, powerful episodes on capital punishment, an issue still much with us.
The old shows, however, never gleamed with wit, as Mad Men does generously. In those days, comedy and drama were as strictly segregated as the genders and races were. Earnestness and realism was all.
Sometimes Mad Men stumbles in its sense of time and place fails when it goes outdoors. I lived in Westchester County up the Hudson River from Don Draper and Co. at the exact same time, and let me tell ya, I had no idea New York State was as arid and dusty as Southern California, where the series is filmed in its entirety. Oh well, can’t do everything. . . .
The exterior city scenes fare worse. A scene where Joan Harris and Roger Sterling are mugged and later get it on—I think that’s how it happens--looks like it was filmed hurriedly on a hollow, hastily built soundstage. If you want what 1960s New York truly looked like, I strongly recommend a DVD of Naked City.
Mad Men often goes down a little dry with me. After five seasons, some of the characters remain weirdly static—Pete Campbell will forever remain TV’s favorite punching bag: I’d take a crosstown bus to watch someone bend his nose. I find it incredible that, after two heart attacks, Roger Sterling, SCDP’s resident Peter Pan, is still alive, smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish and, at the end of this season, dropping acid (twice!).
Since I’m not a big fan of domestic drama, whenever we ride the commuter train home with these folks, my eyes flicker at the clock. Betty Smith (nee Draper) will forever remain an empty dress, as will Trudy Campbell. Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper is wonderful—and, if truth be known, I rather identify with her--but Sally seems less relevant to the show as time goes on. Nor do I care whether Don’s marriage to Megan works out, though I guess it won’t. (Don’s previous “secret” marriage was clumsily handled from the start. I never it found it credible.)
Still, what really keeps me watching most of all is Jon Hamm as Don Draper. From the first, I found Hamm to be a real star and Don Draper a beautifully conceived and compelling character, a creative, brilliant man both caddish and sensitive, insightful and obtuse, swinging between the poles of ruthlessness and anguish. I find tremendous mismatch between his inner soul and outer world fascinating. So many of his actions are well intentioned, but he still finds himself on the jerk end of the stick and deserving it.
So what truth will Don Draper finally chose? That’s what I keep asking. The life of the artistic soul, or the life of easy comfort promised by modern capitalism. By the end of this season, he seems compromised and settling in to the safe life as a Mad Man, acting more and more like a bully as his soul dries to a pile of sand. But don’t think that’s that: with two seasons left and that yawning, unrepaired elevator, the turn of his soul remains unsettled.
[BIG SPOILER HERE!]
Now, about that elevator (which I’ve been obsessing about).
Death was snooping around SCDP all of season 5. After Don almost fell down the elevator shaft in episode 8, it became clear that, in true Chekovian fashion, someone was going take that worst first step.
I quickly laid bets on Lane Pryce, SDCP’s CFO and the show’s most decent, doom-haunted, and conscience-stricken soul. I imagined Lane at the end of an exhausting day, his bedeviled mind awhirl, blindly taking the wrong door.
I turned out to be half-right. I was wrong about his actual exit Lane [joke], but my suggestion on Slate that someone would get the shaft this season was actually met with one of those absurd bursts of indignation endemic on the Internet: How could I be so lame as to suggest that that the writers would be so CHEAP as to employ Chekovian foreshadowing tactics!
Never mind that all good dramatists everywhere, including me, have used foreshadowing since Sophocles. Without it, your TV drama, play, movie, novel, becomes nothing but disconnected balls of mud thrown arbitrarily against the wall. Whether it’s the pistol on the mantel or a yawning elevator, those “cheap stunts” weave together your drama, themes, and character into a whole.
Remember that Peggy Olson almost stepped into the maw herself as she left SDCP for the last time. That it didn’t happen this season does not mean it will not happen in the seasons remaining. Believe me, unless we see Don Draper call maintenance (like he should have; yet another sign of his often glib sensibility), you can count that someone will take the Big Sleep Express to the first floor. The only questions are who and when? (Hell, they might even hold that elevator until the very last shot.)
No, that howling beast still lurks; that and the never-ending, unfolding dilemmas of Don Draper. And so, I’ll keep watching.
(re-edited 6/17/12)Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.