Season 5 of Mad Men ended Sunday night. That means only two more seasons to go, which is good. TV shows need to know where they're headed or you run into the X-Files Syndrome.
People talk about smart TV, and then they mention something like Lost that was sort of dumb TV in smart-TV drag. The creators got so caught up in creating loop-de-loops of logic and plotting, they managed to do a lot of hand waving about some sort of spiritual meaning to the proceedings, but by the mid-point of the final season, it was pretty clear that what they meant by spiritual was a non-threatening atmosphere CD from Target.
Mad Men, somehow, is a show you can most certainly watch as a soap opera with people falling in and out of love, having illicit sex, making bad decisions, etc... But it's increasingly a show that's built on its longevity to build a lexicon and a readability that until 15 years ago, was reserved for film and books.
Deborah Lipp's reviews are more or less Post-Mad Men Monday Morning Reading. And if you think maybe Lipp is simply reading too much into a TV show, there are numerous reviewers out there digging into the show each week, up to their elbows, pulling the episode apart and finding the hidden layers where the good folks at other sites might just want to talk about some awful dress they saw on Peggy.
It's a show that's moved beyond simply being great, nuanced TV in the mold of the past fifteen years, creating great characters, delivering the real performances and giving audiences a chance to get invested. Those shows killed it with subtext and daring-do, and no doubt Mad Men owes them a debt of credit. But I think Mad Men pushes it into metatext, self-reference and creates a resonant experience for the viewer that TV has just learned is possible in a few spots in recent years, working on a literary level other shows suggest they're doing but what they're really delivering is just a game of connect the dots.
Sure, I'm gushing, but what should have been a period piece about hanky panky in the office has morphed into a new mode of television for which we should all be pretty happy to have around, even if Mad Men itself isn't your thing. If we're going to build these longform narratives, let's try to do something with them other than string an audience along to see what the aliens are up to, what's the secret of the island, who killed the one-armed man, or even whatever the hell they were trying to say with Six Feet Under that felt like so much flailing after a season...
This season was occasionally a bit on the nose, but that's a bit on the nose by Mad Men standards. That means someone saying something aloud which might partially express the theme. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I think it was necessary to get a bit louder to bring in the viewers who still thought they were watching a soap about Peggy vs. Joan or Betty vs. Everything. And it made a difference. This year, it seems like the conversation online seemed to be discussing what was said and done, and finding the small bits set their to hint at the theme or plot. And that's okay.
When the elevator shaft was shown, immediately everyone said "oh, who will fall down that?". No. (a) That was already famously done on LA Law and (b) that was missing the point of the scene. Mad Men has never been about rewarding the audience for guessing what will happen next except in knowing when characters experience a shift. After all, that's the big question at the last shot of the episode, wasn't it? The elevator was saying something else, and its up to us to figure out what that was (yes, I have my ideas).
Do I want to know what happens next? Sure! I'm not made of stone. But I also like a show that's driving this sort of discussion without me feeling vaguely embarrassed for the folks over-guessing or over-analyzing bits far beyond any intended significance. Yes, that happens a bit with this show, too, but we don't really have a handbook for either this sort of television or for Mad Men itself. Not yet, anyway.
Here's to two more seasons. And Peggy.