Sometimes it seems as if only Daniel Mendelsohn and the New York Review of Books can criticize AMC’s “Mad Men.” Only someone like Mendelsohn, whose work is devoted to mythic themes and to the eternal, can look past the crisp elegance of Don Draper’s pocket square and the show’s captivating visual style. Only someone like Mendelsohn can see its aesthetics as fantasy, a dream of living in a time when drinking and smoking were encouraged, when people would cheer you on for sleeping with your secretary, (when offices had secretaries), when men wore hats, and uniformed elevator men led you gracefully to your floor. And it could only run in a journal like the New York Review, a journal that started during the New York printers’ strike of 1962-1963, an event that would have transpired sometime during “Mad Men’s” third season. Only a publication designed to be academic and comprehensive, someplace that wouldn’t even review “Mad Men” until the end of Season Four, can look past the immediate joys of watching the show.
Then, at other times, it feels as if some sort of cultural window opens and everyone (myself included) gets their two months to criticize “Mad Men.” The joys of watching disappear. Its slowness becomes tediousness. Its oblique approach to historical events feels ridiculous against the backdrop of radicalism, of escalating war, and of rioting and mass protests.
Yet directly engaging with historical events is even worse. The aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King dominated this season’s fourth episode. Characters were scared; characters were hopeless. Everyone was glued to the TV because that was the only thing they knew they could do. They debated whether to go to the office the next day and what to do at the office. Were they really supposed to work?
It’s a perfectly rational discussion for two characters — even two real people — to have. But the conversation also highlighted what was until then the bland ok-ness of Season Six. For weeks, nothing happened. Themes were sketched; elements of eventual movements were gathered; breakpoints between the characters flashed up. Accounts came, accounts went; you could tell that something would happen, but nothing had.