I had originally intended to do an episode by episode analysis of Mad Men, finishing at the same time as the current run on BBC4. But my reasons for not doing so (besides total indolence) are very closely tied in with my love for the show, so I’m going to highlight just one episode to explain why I think Mad Men is the current Best Thing on TV. It’s the penultimate episode of the first season titled ‘Nixon vs Kennedy’. (NB: Spoilers off the port bow! If you haven’t watched Mad Men yet, set aside the weekend, buy the boxset – believe me, you lose a lot of the sumptuousness with streaming it – and enjoy.)
‘Nixon vs Kennedy’ highlights the main reason Mad Men is far superior to almost all those other life-consuming boxsets. When it first started airing, many people complained about its glacial pacing. I’m not trying to make a case for myself as somebody who’s made of very stern intellectual stuff, but it honestly never occurred to me. I haven’t got an especially high attention span but with Mad Men, you never feel you’re being cheated of your time. The program moves at a pace not a million miles away from life as it is lived, and crucially, in doing so, it contains some of depth of ‘real life’.
I never feel the pacing as slow because you’re being nourished as the story unfolds. Mad Men places character infinitely higher than plot, without forgetting that without interesting circumstances to put these characters in, we might as well be watching real life. In my view, it’s the programs where you can feel the writers seeking means to obfuscate your view of their marvelous cabinet of secrets, where they give you a tiny glimpse, only to snap shut the lid, that have a truly slow pace. You can feel the hours wasting as you resolutely watch on and on in order to discover just what’s just around the corner, only to find out it’s another long road to a corner. Mad Men takes away this sense of being held at a remove, and allows you to discover things as you would in real life.
Not that Mad Men is without its secrets. The whole of the first series uses a bubbling plot line about Don Draper’s mysterious past to engage the audience. But it’s the weight that this secret puts upon his well-drawn character that makes it compelling.
Pete Campbell, the unctuous and aspiring account executive, has discovered that Don is not the man he claims to be. He doesn’t know all the details, but there’s more than enough to fuel a slog through three episodes of blackmailing and recriminations in another TV show. Initially, Don’s reaction is to flee in fear, attempting to elope with Rachel, the one other person who knows the other major detail of his life (as I say, the secrets are revealed as they would be in real life – Don tells Rachel that his mother was a prostitute mid-season because he views her as an equal and, as a result, we’re allowed in on the truth). ‘You know more about me than anyone,’ he implores. Showing her ‘staunch‘ character (I sincerely hope she returns at some point during Season three’s run as she’s one of the few characters to match Don’s strength), she spurns him: ‘What kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your life?’ ‘People do it every day,’ he replies, the viewer now appraised of the weight of these words from Don. Although he loses Rachel, he realises he must truly begin living the life he has made for himself.
And so the stage is set for a scene that encapsulates all that is great with Mad Men. Don confronts Pete: ‘I thought about what you said. Then I thought about you; and what a deep lack of character you have.’ Don realises that although he is not living the life he was given, he has earned it, unlike Pete Campbell who thinks the world owes him a living because his ‘parents are rich, [he] went to prep school, and [he] has a five dollar haircut.’
‘Is this like in the movies where I have a gun and you think I won’t shoot you? I WILL shoot you.’ There’s an nice meta-textual quality to these lines, as we see how a movie scenario play out in ‘real’ life, with Pete bungling and nervous in his blackmail role. Don and Pete rush off to Bert Cooper’s office and Don tells Bert that he will be hiring Duck Phillips instead of Pete. Pete reveals Don’s secret, or what he knows of it. Bert Cooper looks surprised, comes around the table to address both men, turns to Pete and…
‘Who cares?’ Bert Cooper’s response is so surprising to a generation of viewers raised on the primacy of revelation that it takes a few seconds for the discombobulation to end. So he repeats. ‘Who cares?’ It’s a moment of sheer genius, because it denies our expectations and confirms what we know about Mad Men: the secrets are the sauce and not the meal. It’s also important because it says a lot about the era in which it happens. The episode is set against a backdrop of the 1960 Nixon vs Kennedy election. While Kennedy’s rise to power could confirm Pete’s nepotistic position (as Don says, ‘Kennedy: nouveau riche who bought his way into Harvard and now he’s well bred.’), from Mad Men‘s perspective, the election and Don’s position reflects something which has always been true of American society and is especially true following the Second World War and the Korean War: A man is who he is in whatever room he is in right now or ‘This country was built by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here’ to put it in Bert Cooper’s words. It confirms what Don suddenly realises: he need no longer be full of self-recrimination about stealing someone else’s life: that he can live it and succeed is proof enough that he is that man.
Serialisation is a great way of telling a story. I would never suggest that there isn’t a pleasure of anticipating the plot and being partly tantalised by being frustrated in our expectations. But crucially, the revelations when they come should not be the sole purpose of the work and should make sense within the universe as its created (the inclinations of the characters being the key to this). A comparison between the two schools of storytelling (character leading plot or plot leading character) from another era would be Charles Dickens and his protege Wilkie Collins. Dickens definitely knew when to break off each serialised section of his novels so as to have the public gasping for more (the majority of his works were broken down and interspersed into magazines before being printed in three-decker omnibuses) . Indeed, there’s a perhaps apocryphal story that Dickens told about venturing out to buy more paper to complete the latest instalment of a novel, but being blocked by an irate subscriber at the stationer, demanding that he have a copy of the instalment he was then writing. Collins wrought the same desire for resolution in the reader, but this is borne from a weariness with the vast expanses of uninspired maundering and tedium, interspersed with cryptic hints. There’s no great active pleasure in reading Collins, only in grinding onwards to the reveal (which is always massively underwhelming). Ultimately, the question is, if one had a synopsis of the plot, would it be worth reading otherwise? With a program like Lost, the nutritional value of each episode is relatively minimal, meaning that, as each new series is released, it more or less nullifies the previous one.
So as I say, the reason I couldn’t write an episode by episode account of Mad Men is that each episode bleeds so seamlessly into the next that it would nullify the purpose of speaking of them separately (look at how many words I’ve generated from one scene). Like life, Mad Men‘s Just One Damn Thing After Another.
I’m going to be posting some photos of some of my favourite fashions from Mad Men in the coming days. Stay tuned.