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.
Then, BOOM: In the season’s sixth episode, Roger takes his job seriously for the first time in two seasons, the firm loses two major clients, the firm gains a new major client by merging with another “little guy,” Peggy comes back to the office, Peggy kisses her boss, Don has sex with his wife for what might be the first time this year, IPO plans emerge only to be scuttled, a banker flirts with Joan by complimenting her clean bookkeeping, Pete Cambell’s marital status goes from “separated and working on it” to “I hate you,” and no one accepts the extra cup of deli coffee that the young, brown-nosing accounts man is always sure to bring back because too much is happening for us to pay any attention to this new storyline, no matter how significant a role it may play in the next year-and-a-half.
It was close to a great episode. Only the fact that so many moments felt like a repetition of scenes that had come before stops me from calling it great. But I won’t try to argue with anyone who says it was great, because it was both funny and momentous, and the major events all emerged organically out of the main characters.
“Mad Men” is at its best (maybe only ever really good) when its title is a synonym for “angry people,” when its characters rage, when they fight over the course of the business, over the direction of the family, and explode with the desire to be alive and to have that life matter. The show is only ever great when the characters drop the facade of coolness and live out their passions, when they suddenly propose marriage or effectively blackmail their in-laws. The show works when emotional energy forces action. Sunday’s episode worked because Joan’s outburst at Don was the result of spending years silently living with Don’s pettiness.
But I’m not ready to forgive “Mad Men,” nor do I really want to. It’s glib and critically easy to say that “Mad Men” is never as bad as its critics think it is, or as good as its celebrants claim. There have been some truly outstanding episodes of “Mad Men”: the pilot, the first season finale, the third season finale, almost all of Season Four, the episode where Roger takes LSD, and every episode centered around Ken Cosgrove’s literary career.
But the show too often lets aesthetic perfection substitute for good storytelling. We marvel at the look of “Mad Men,” the surface sheen of beautiful bodies wearing beautiful clothes in beautiful locales. We then put on our “Mad Men” branded Banana Republic suits and drink Old Fashioneds at the cocktail bar in what passes for the neighborhood’s luxury hotel. The show does such an excellent job of making us want to live in its aesthetics that we forget how cold and empty and uneven its storytelling is and how little its characters grow.
I’ll admit that the lack of character growth is an intentional feature of the show. More than any other drama, “Mad Men” challenges us to reject the idea of change. Season Five was about the question: Has Don grown? He had a new wife, a new apartment, and was finally getting the chance to do serious work. Would he make the same mistakes with Megan that he made with Betty? Would he help Megan’s career after ruining Betty’s? Would he cheat on her and lie to her about who he is? [SPOILER ALERT] Yes. He would. The “big reveal” of the premier episode of Season Six is that Don has been sleeping with the Catholic wife of his neighbor, a Jewish doctor.
(Digression: Can we now say that a hidden theme of “Mad Men” is that intermarriages don’t work? I’m half-joking, but consider: Don’s mistress from Season One, the Jewish department store heiress Rachel Menken, escapes his philandering and seems to be happily married to a nice Jewish man; Roger’s marriage to the Jewish Jane steadily disintegrates until they decide to divorce after an LSD fueled night together. Now we have the cuckolded Jewish doctor and Peggy’s relationship with Abe is both falling apart and getting more serious.)
The bigger sin of Don’s regression is that we never saw what brought Don and the Catholic wife together, what caused Don to finally cheat on Megan (assuming that this is the first time he’s cheated on her). Setting the turning points in your main character’s life off-screen is bad storytelling.
The show’s largest problem, however, is its self-importance. Part of the appeal of “Mad Men” is its vision of ordinary life during the 1960s. We saw people at the office stay up all night to wait for the results of the Kennedy-Nixon election; we saw the stiltedness of early-Civil Rights racial interaction in Betty’s awkward dealings with their housekeeper and in Paul Kinsey’s attempt to demonstrate his progressiveness by dating an African American woman from Montclair. We saw Joan’s husband go back to Vietnam in order to feel more like a man. It gave us a vision of life during a rising flood.
But History is becoming too big for “Mad Men” — or maybe it’s better to say that the show’s need to take on the big events in American culture, its need to be about something and to say something important, has finally caught up with it. Another Kennedy assassination is on its way. The sexual revolution is going to leave suburban swinging and become a mass phenomenon. (Oh yeah, the big plot development this season is that everyone has decided to start Swinging, possibly because John Updike’s “Couples” was a huge hit the year this season takes place.) Vietnam will only keep escalating as a cultural force. There will be violent protests at the Democratic National Convention. There will be bombings. College students will be shot by the National Guard.
You don’t need me to recount the events of the late-60s and early-1970s, and you don’t need “Mad Men” to do it either. The King episode found the show struggling with the question: to engage directly with politics or to be a part of the silent majority? It wasn’t sure how to act. But, more problematically, it didn’t seem sure of how its characters would react. If Mendelsohn is right, and “Mad Man” succeeded by creating a dreamscape, a fantasy early-‘60s, then it is failing because we know too much about the time period it’s entering. There’s no room for a dreamscape when the reality is so vividly remembered, and so vividly documented in its own time. Why should I watch “Mad Men” take on the sexual revolution when I can watch “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” or read “Portnoy’s Complaint” or listen to Leonard Cohen’s lyrics become more lurid and suggestive over a run of several albums?
“Mad Men” reaches greatness when it stays within the narrow lives of its protagonists. This last episode excelled by staying entirely within its own self-contained world. The episode focused on work and on the people who work. The episode was about advertising. The episode was about the lives of people who try to sell things by diagnosing the average American mood, not about the average American mood.
There are two beautiful moments in Season Two, two moments that perfectly capture the change in how Americans thought about art, life, and experience. In one, Ken Cosgrove stairs at a Rothko painting and says, “When you look at it, you feel something.” In another, Peggy Olson listens to a jingle for Martinson’s Coffee and agrees that it captures a mood, a feeling of being in time and space. (It should; it’s essentially the Serge Gainsbourg song “Couleur Café.”) Behind both moments, behind each encounter with art, is Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” and its urgent call to resist “knowing” what a work of art means, and to instead see, hear and feel the art. Those moments are beautiful because they transform an intellectual essay about the nature of art into a narrative of living. They are beautiful because the show never announces that it’s going to be about the problem of art, it just is.
There was a moment in this last episode, where Don is talking shop with his new business partner, when I felt as if I was back there, when I bought the advertising. Maybe this season has been so frustrating because it finally makes clear that the show is, to steal a phrase from Norman Mailer, an advertisement for itself. Each episode is an ad for “Mad Men,” a pitch to buy the show, to buy the lifestyle that comes with the show, to buy the idea that something significant is happening here. Some ads are better than others.