Aug 12, 2009
This essay is part of “Point-Hyperpoint: Mad Men,” a rollicking series of posts devoted to discussing AMC’s drama series. Spoilers abound. To read the entire series, please visit this page. To see all of Plasma Pool’s “Point-Hyperpoint” discussions, please click here.
Mad Men stands out from similarly well-regarded series in that very little seems to happen in each episode and season. Compared to a show like The Sopranos, the monolithic series on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner cut his teeth, it appears to lumber along with all the narrative excitement of Antiques Roadshow. Even the show’s most ardent supporters would have to admit that it moves slowly.
At the same time, a quick rundown of each season’s plot makes it sound like a soap opera. In the first season: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has affairs with beatnik Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) and careerist Jew Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff), contemplates running away with Rachel to a new life in California or Mexico, and is found out by several of his colleagues to have actually been born Dick Whitman, a farmboy who assumed another man’s identity when he was burned beyond all recognition in the Korean War. Young secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has an affair with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a junior accounts executive at Sterling Cooper, gains lots of weight, becomes the firm’s first female copywriter in the finale, and then immediately gives birth to Pete’s lovechild even though she didn’t know she was pregnant. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) continues his long-running affair with cartoonishly curvy office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), only to suffer multiple heart attacks (one during a one-night stand with a girl who’s likely barely legal) that force him to take on a lesser role at the firm.
The second season is less sensationalistic (mostly due to a relative lack of Dick Whitman antics) but still has its share of intrigue: Don begins an affair with fellow serial adulterer Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw), shortly after which the two get in a car wreck that they cover up with Peggy’s help, except Don’s wife Betty (January Jones) finds out about the affair and kicks Don out of the house, sending him into an existential tailspin that culminates in his leaving an important aerospace conference in Los Angeles to spend a few days with a young woman (who he sleeps with, duh) and her roving band of decadent Europeans. Don then realizes the error of his ways and returns to Betty, who takes him back in large part because she learns that she is pregnant with their third child, but not before she fucks a random guy at a bar at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Peggy’s older sister has taken on her child, which allows Peggy to assert herself at Sterling Cooper and eventually become one of the firm’s senior copywriters. Pete’s father dies in an awful plane crash, and his wife can’t get pregnant. Joan is raped by her fiance on the floor of Don’s office. Roger divorces his wife of twenty-plus years to marry Don’s 20-year-old secretary. Head of Accounts Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) orchestrates a takeover of Sterling Cooper by a larger British firm that would make him president, but he loses his job when he learns that Don has no contract or non-compete clause and therefore cannot be threatened by the prospect of working under a man he hates. Then again, maybe Duck would’ve kept his cool if he could handle his liquor better. (Okay, the second season is still pretty out there.)
It’s hard to say that nothing happens on a show with all those events, yet the experience of watching Mad Men and the show suggested by these lists are quite incongruous; again, no one would say this show moves quickly. There are a few possible explanations for how this contradiction can function. First, very little happens in any one episode. To take the example of just one plot point described above, the Dick Whitman story unfolds over the last 11 episodes of the first season in little bits: in one episode we an old army buddy call him “Dick,” in another we meet his long-lost brother, a few episodes later we get a flashback to young Dick’s home life and an experience with a hobo. Plus, these bits of information are all presented within a larger thematic framework, so they usually feel more like emotional context than major plot revelations. As is the norm in modern television, Weiner also tends to backload the major storylines of each season — the Dick Whitman revelation, Peggy’s birth, Betty’s pregnancy, and the corporate takeover all happen in the last two episodes of their respective seasons — which helps explain why early episodes tend to be a little slow.
That description might make Mad Men sound like HBO’s dearly departed The Wire, a series that piles up its many plot points in initially unclear ways only to have everything interlock like a 500-piece puzzle by season’s end. The Wire essentially requires its viewers to keep a running list of names and events if they want to make sense of the plotlines — as Lester Freamon said in one of the series’ most famous lines, “all the pieces matter.” But Mad Men treats its season-ending conclusions in an entirely different way — they just kind of happen. Even in the case of the Dick Whitman revelation, a moment that was constantly foreshadowed throughout the first season, the setup is less a series of interlocking flashbacks to Don’s past than a handful of loosely connected stories about his life. Pete learns the truth about Don/Dick because he is mistakenly given a package full of old photos and documents, not because he did a bunch of detective work that led him to a long-hidden truth. When you rewatch The Wire, each plot point is as important as any other because each must occur to reach the season’s conclusion. But the point of rewatching Mad Men episodes is primarily to experience a key emotional scene from a new vantage point.
It’s that overwhelming focus on emotion over plot that distinguishes this show from others of similar quality. The generally acknowledged best scene in Mad Men’s first two seasons is Don’s speech about Kodak’s “Carousel” in the first-season finale, an impeccably written and acted product pitch that simultaneously carries the emotional weight of every interaction and bit of information involving Don’s relationship with his family:
Embedding on this video is unfortunately disabled, but please watch it.
Strictly speaking, this scene could have happened at any point in the season — Don gives lots of pitches and it’s possible he could have come up with this particular one in the second episode. But it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does in the finale if the show didn’t do such a fantastic job observing the Drapers’ home life and Don’s attempts to break away from it. Detailing exactly why this scene works so well almost demands a recapitulation of an entire season. Other shows have similar moments, but none tilt the balance so far towards emotion and away from plot as does Mad Men. It’s telling that when Bert Cooper learns about Don’s past as Dick Whitman, he shrugs it off as unimportant. If we’ve been paying attention up until this point, we should feel the same way: Who cares about Dick Whitman when Don Draper is so much more interesting?
The Sopranos always had two types of fans: those who watched for the whackings and those who mostly watched for the deeply fucked up emotional relationships in Tony Soprano’s two families (I say “mostly” because everyone watched for the whackings in some way). With Mad Men, Weiner has basically stripped the whackings away from The Sopranos and created a show about a man whose work and home life aren’t working out as well as the brochure promised they would. Weiner didn’t withhold every salacious element from his show — there’s plenty of extramarital intrigue, thank you very much — but we don’t have the genre trappings of mob deals and murder to distract us from the sadness at the show’s core. We can all agree on the Kodak speech in ways we could never agree about The Sopranos.