Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mad Men starts winding it up this evening

I am going to miss the hell out of these two characters

The second half of the final season of AMC's Mad Men begins this evening.

Of all the shows that have marked the transformation of television in the past 10-15 years, something that looks, on paper, like a sudsy soap opera, free from gun play or spies or gangsters or even the threat of violence, has been the show that's genuinely surprised me the most over the duration of the program.

You don't need to jump to the comments to tell me you tried it and just couldn't do it.  I know.  I've heard that a lot over the years.  I don't expect everyone to all like the same thing.  I'm sure AMC wishes that the show had the greater appeal of a prime-time soap, and for all I know, that's what they thought they were green lighting.  Instead, they produced one of the most nuanced, long-running, multi-character character studies to ever get broadcast.

One of the funny things is reading articles or posts on legitimate news sites and pop-culture reflector sites from writers who are clearly longtime viewers, and so often their criticism of the show boils down to you really wanting to just raise your hand and say "you're describing your own baggage you're bringing to the show.  The problem isn't that the show didn't do that well, it's that this aspect of the character gets to you."  Next time you see a Mad Men puff piece in Salon or Slate of Huff Po or whatever site likes to write about the show, just look for it, for I assure you, it's always there.

It's a difficult show in that it does not ask you to sympathize with a Walter White as he goes down the well.  You aren't up close feeling his desperation and tasting his victories or understanding his horror at some of his own choices.

The show has always stood back a pace from even the lead protagonists, it leaves scenes out completely, and refers to events in shorthand that we don't need to see play out to understand what occurred.  Seeing Don Draper make a decision or have a reaction comes as much as a surprise to the audience as it does to his colleagues in the presentation room.  I mean, who saw the Hershey's speech coming?  But, of course, once it's out there, was there any other way that episode could have finished?

In no way am I trying to diminish what Breaking Bad accomplished, because that's a phenomenal program.  It's just a very, very different show about people dealing in the extremes of their lives and on the farthest edge of modern, American life.  Mad Men has always been about the long curve of history between people and the edges of those people causing cuts and abrasions along the way.  The experience of the advertising firm employee or owner may not be totally relatable, but it's a pretty far cry from cooking meth in a secret, underground lab.

Scratch that.  Given crime stats, there's probably way more people cooking meth than selling Kodak projectors, so maybe it's just that I'm more familiar with a white collar office than being an unofficial employee of Los Pollos Hermanos.


The costumes, adherence to period setting, dress and attitudes certainly set the stage in Season 1, but the real test was both whether the show could work beyond that idea (shows trying to utilize the formula have not done so well, see:  Pan-Am and The Playboy Club, and even AMC's own attempt to recapture the magic, Halt and Catch Fire, which was pretty awful after the first three episodes) and, frankly, whether an audience would stay with the show once the novelty of Kennedy-era sexiness drifted away, and illicit sex became a given.

The audience has sometimes tried very, very hard to make the show something it isn't in their own minds.  A couple of years ago a minor-subplot of a new employee's dodginess about his personal life got read into online conversations about how he must be either KGB or CIA (he was gay).  This super-spy nonsense was forced upon a show about an advertising agency.  It's like trying to figure out who killed Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street.  It just makes no sense.

The audience wants for there to be villains and heroes, wants to understand the show in terms of us vs. them that the show has never even suggested.  It is not Team Don vs. Team Peggy, and I often wonder how the audience is watching the same program I'm watching if that's their take-away.   Peggy herself has been a POV character, especially in early seasons, but outgrew that role, and left the audience trying to Mary Sue themselves into the show a bit adrift.

Far, far less drinking occurs in the hallowed halls of digital libraries than with these guys

As a 40-ish white guy who sometimes has to wear a tie, whose career has often centered around championing ideas and executing both the practical and the illusory, like so many other folks in white collar jobs, sure - I get some of Don Draper in a way that I can only really appreciate a Walter White from the standpoint of a fictional, "what if?" scenario.  And that's the noir aspect of Breaking Bad.  He's a man pushed into a deep, dark reality he never intended to encounter and from which there are no exits.  Mad Men has a million doors, but the limitations or boundaries (or lack thereof) of the characters are what keep them from noticing them.

It's part of what's been so fascinating about watching the stunningly talented Kiernan Shipka grow up on the show as Sally Draper.  Don is who he is, and the same can most certainly be said of Betty Draper/ Francis.   Both audience and fictional parents know Sally could be anything, but she also has Don Draper as a father and Betty as a mother,  and the world they create for their daughter is having an impact.  Even when her horizons are opened - from smoking with her roommates to witnessing her father's infidelity, one of those millions of doors open to her gets locked up.  In a lot of ways, the question of the final episode isn't "what happens to Don?" or "what happens to Peggy?", it's "what happens to Sally?"  Peggy will be fine - she's a better version of Don, someone with the creativity and vision without the same weight in her baggage.  Don will be fine-ish, short of a piano falling out of a window onto him as he leaves the office.

Really, it's Sally and Roger, the two children of the show, you have to worry about.

So, yeah, I'll miss the hell out of Mad Men when it's over.    It's also one of the few shows I'll ever watch over again in its entirety, and not for Star Trek nostalgia purposes, but because it's revisiting a good book and being reminded of how good it is, and finding new things in the book as you go through again.  And maybe finding something new at age 40 you didn't see there at age 35.

Here's to the final few episodes.  Here's to a damn fine bit of storytelling.


Sound Affects said...

Funny you end on the book thing. My take since I started watching, binging the first 2 seasons on Netflix before the third started, was that this was the closest I'd ever seen TV get to an American Literature classic. I just watched the new episode and it was a perfect example of what I mean by that. I think this show will be even better, watched all the way through, without breaks between seasons. And I'm going out on a limb and saying the ending is going to disappoint anyone that doesn't understand that this is our generation's great american novel.

The League said...

I'm of the exact same opinion. I really can't think of any other show that worked with an approach to narrative that fired on all cylinders to such a satisfying degree. I'll be curious to see, in 20 years, how/ if the show is remembered as most of the US is watching Kardashians and former celebrities awkwardly dancing for points. But I think there's a very strong chance the show will be recalled as the beginning of something we don't quite have a name for yet.

Sound Affects said...

It never draws simple, obvious "symbolic" parallels. It's much more organic than any other show in that way and it never feels like the writers are being clever. I think Breaking Bad has some of that as well, but because it was a much more intense story, it came across as more in your face than I think it actually was under the surface. But Mad Men really is on a whole other level. It's not even fair to compare it to anything I've seen.