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Mad Men: From Good to Great

[Note that I’ve removed all the distributed “in my opinion”s from the following, and instead have concentrated them in this introductory paragraph. The following expresses nothing but my opinion:]

Tonight is the season finale of Mad Men, a show that I think has gone from good to great because it has outlived its premise.

Shows that start out with a strong premise often need a couple of seasons to find their way past it. The Sopranos, for example, initially revolved around the cute premise that a mob boss would have mother issues that drove him into analysis. The Sopranos was good from the beginning, but not because of the premise: the acting was amazing, the cast was large, the relationships were complex. It took a season or two for the Sopranos to develop the tragic sense that made its basic comedy so deep. Dexter likewise has gotten better (unevenly) as the starkness of the premise (decent guy except he has to kill people) has been surrounded by less extreme human drama. The same for the Mary Tyler Moore Show (a working girl who is ok with being single) and M*A*S*H (doctors kept sane by humor in an absurd foreign war).

Now, it may well be that what’s really happening is that it takes a couple of seasons for the relationships to develop that deepen a show. If the best of television has gotten more complex over time (as Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You), then the same is true within a series as well as across all series. TV series let us tell (in Steve’s words) 100-hour stories, and the first set of hours are necessarily not as developed as the later sets. During those early sets, the show relies more on its premise.

For me, Mad Men started out as a totally enjoyable series that focused on reminding us through mores and decor what life in the 1950s was really like. That first season was all about the wall art and the martini lunches. You could almost hear the writers’ meetings in which they’d say things like, “Oooh, you know what would be really cool? Let’s have an embarrassingly pretentious ‘bohemian’ ad guy who dates a black woman to make a statement,” or “Let’s make sure that all the offices have bars in them.” Now in its fourth season, there are plenty of period references, but the show is less about them. It’s about an amazing ensemble grappling with timeless issues within the constraints of their era. It’s blown way past its original inspiration. And that is awesome

[SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen Season One:] My once concern is the series’ continued fascination with Don’s double identity. In the original idea for the show, that might have been the kicker that sold it to the TV executives: “So you have a show set in the 1950s as they really were. But what’s it about? What happens?” The fact that Don stole his identity long ago and is at risk of being discovered might have sounded like a good answer. But by now for me it’s a melodramatic contrivance that’s out of place in the series’ genuine drama.

The identity theft has shown up in this season. I’m afraid that the finale will come back to that as the cliffhanger. If so, it’s too bad. We don’t need it. There are enough cliffs already; this season has been about the humiliation and cleansing of Don Draper, a long night that is not yet over. Don Draper is fascinating enough without the silly dual identity backstory.

BTW, have I mentioned how much I love the acting? Even January Jones (Betty) is having a good year, perhaps because she’s out of the dramatic center and thus doesn’t have to try to round her character out to a full three dimensions. Every one of the rest of the women are phenomenal, expressing so much nuance and life within and through the limited social roles they are allowed to play — which is itself a heartbreakingly true reflection on the times. And I have to say that Don and Betty’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is amazing. I don’t know how tonight’s episode will wrap up the season, but I do know that we will be watching this phenomenally gifted 12 year old for the rest of our lives.

5 Responses to “Mad Men: From Good to Great”

  1. I entirely share your enthusiasm for this wonderful show which has always been for me more Shakespearean Drama than historical showcase. I have much to say about this show but I will just respond to the identity theme.

    Don Draper, like Hamlet, is an artist whose identity does not easily fit in to the world in which he finds himself. He has been playing the role of Don Draper since he stole that identity. Don Draper, the successful AD Man, is not the true Don. The true Don is an artist who will become a writer by the end of the series. He has already begun to keep a journal. I even have a suspicion that the series is based upon a five act Shakespearean play and that next season will be the last for this particular series.

    Don is the center of this world, so when he leaves Madison Avenue and advertising, the show too will come to an end. There are wonderful sequel possibilities especially since the late sixties counter-culture is just beginning in Mad Men this season.

    When Don said ” I am tired of running” in one of the last shows, I believe he is tired of running away from himself. He is a persona and not a real person. His amorous escapades are only an enantiodromic balancing of his office persona.

    This is Don Draper’s story. He has been driven toward success because he does not wish to repeat the poverty of his childhood upbringing. He assumes a false identity, lives the American dream, and will shed both the identity and the dream as the “authentic 60’s” begin to affect him.

    How could I imagine such a scenario?

    At the end of each show there is a logo flashed upon the screen for a few brief seconds. The logo is not a logo at all but one of the Major Arcana Tarot Cards called “The Sun”.

    The Sun has the mythical association of Apollo who “was often depicted with his famous lyre as god of music, poetry, and song.” (Sharman-Burke, p. 112)

    The Introductory video of Don falling beside a skyscraper may be most interestingly compared to another Tarot card called, “The Tower”. On this card figures are seen falling from a tower that has been struck by lightning.

    The Tower represents ” the external circumstances which constrict internal development; the social conventions which bind…The conflicts inherent in our behavior when we attempt to structure our lives by convention are symbolized by the Tower, a narrow, constricting edifice, and the lightning represents the flash of vision which causes us to change and live our own chosen way.” (Sharman -Burke, p. 105 – 106)

    Don Draper is on a journey toward himself. He first must pass through his ego and his chosen or stolen personas in order to reach his true self. He is a creative artist. His creativity has been channeled quite successfully into advertising, yet his true self lies both beyond the office and the bedroom.

    The series is beautifully set in the early 1960’s. Both the sets and the wardrobes exhibit exceptional attention to detail. Yet this is no Docu-drama. The central issues are archetypal and not merely historical. Even though the historical accuracy is especially meaningful for those of us who grew up in this time period, mere history is secondary to the archetypal theme of identity.

    Identity is a theme each of us have faced or evaded. Are we tired of running? Will we be able to discover and activate our own true self.

    Polonius advises his son, Laertes, “To Thine Own Self Be True”!

    I do not believe that Don will follow the tragic pattern of Hamlet and leave Horatio to tell his tale. I believe Don will escape the Tower and will himself tell the tale of his escape.

    I have quoted from Juliet Sharman-Burke’s book entitled The Complete Book of the Tarot.

  2. “Enantiodromia (Greek: enantios, opposite + dromos, running course) is a principle introduced by psychiatrist Carl Jung that the superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite. It is equivalent to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme is opposed by the system in order to restore balance.”

  3. I agree: this season of Mad Men has been the best so far, with Don Draper coming face-to-face with his humanity. Sadly, January Jones’s character became a shrill and strident caricature – I found her completely uninteresting. In contrast, the Sally Draper character developed a fascinating pre-teen complexity that was beautifully expressed by the young actor.

    I’m guessing that next season, Betty Draper will be largely out of the picture (even more so than this season), as she has become superfluous to the interesting action elsewhere, aside from one possible future: that Don goes for custody of the children, given what happened in the finale. (Personally, I prefer Fay Miller, but that’s just me…)

  4. LOVE Mad Men! But I still cannot agree with you about January Jones’ acting getting any better. I mean she is well cast in the role of Betty Draper but only because Betty Draper is a complete non-character, her only emotion is whiny.

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