What Made Mad Men a Great Show

The greatness of the AMC television show Mad Men lies in one simple principle: it continually defies audience expectations of what a television show should do. It is a seemingly conventional TV show with a conventional premise (a historical family/business drama about one man, Don Draper, in particular, and a whole ensemble of characters that surround him) that repeatedly plays with those conventions. At the same time it never gets distracted by that playfulness, never veering off too far into surrealism (like some other shows)—instead it is always grounded in the histories and narratives of its characters and the events of the American 1960's.
I have almost managed to catch up with all 6 1/2 seasons of the show right before the whole thing finishes with the last half of season 7, which began this past Sunday, April 5. The torrid and tangled lives of Don Draper, Betty and Megan, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Harris, and Roger Sterling have been fresh in my mind over the last year and it has convinced me that not only is the show great, but it is perhaps one of the greatest of all time.

Here are a few of the ways Mad Men has fashioned itself into a classic show by continuing to defy convention:

1. Some of the most important plot progressions are incredibly anti-climactic.
One of the most powerful moments in the show's run is significant for me because of how anti-climactic it was. The moment when Betty Draper finally finds out and then confronts Don about his hidden past in season 3 episode 11 "The Gypsy and the Hobo" should have been the biggest Gotcha! moment in the show up to that point. It should have felt cathartic for Betty to expose Don's lies. It should have felt like a victory. Instead it only felt pathetic. It was an anticlimax. There was no victory to be won. Instead of receiving justice on her end Betty Draper only came to realize how sad Don is, how he is a shell of a man, who will never realize who he is or what he wants.

This kind of unsettling and unsatisfying anti-climax plays out in reality, with one's own parents, when they realize those people they have hated all their lives are just pitiful middle-aged adults with their own limitations and sets of problems. They are not evil, they are just doing the best they can with their lot. This realization is unsatisfying because it denies us the Comic Book Ending, which is the pleasure found in eradicating and humiliating The Enemy, an obvious evil. It is unsettling because we come to realize the same patience and graciousness we hope everyone will extend to us for our own weaknesses, we now have to extend to our parents. We wanted a victory but all we got was a call to be a person of mercy and understanding. Don Draper is not any more evil than you or I, we just thought he was. He is just a normal guy. That realization sobers us up to the reality that our parents and grandparents were just people too, dealing with their own set of problems and limitations.

And this is only one example. On many levels Mad Men continually denies viewers a Comic Book Ending, and thus forces us into asking the tough questions about ourselves and those we thought were our enemies.

2. It builds tension in odd ways and releases tensions in odd ways.

When watching the early seasons I never felt like I could get my bearings as a viewer and nearly every episode left me disoriented. I could not pick up on its rhythm or tell where any of it was going. As a viewer this left me intrigued and challenged. The mystery of the show was not some plot point, like "who was the murderer?" and the tension was not built around "will the good guys win?", instead its mystery and tension were found in the soul of Don Draper himself and the people that surrounded his life.

I couldn't believe this scene when I first saw it.
I mean, what was happening!? 
And so, in one discomfiting scene after another we are left wondering "Who are these people and what are they after?" And I am sure we will be left asking those same questions long after the show ends. But in terms of plot this means the shockers are truly shocking, that is, unexpected. There are moments that lead to a blow up when we did not even know there was any tension to begin with, and, as stated above, there are moments we expect to be a blowup that play out with sorry fizzle.

Again, this might not make for an immediately satisfying viewing experience and I can imagine it has turned off plenty people, but in my mind this is exactly why Mad Men has risen to a near unmatched level of greatness.

3. Similarly, (to the previous point) it has created some new kind of cliffhanger, where we're not even sure how we should feel when an episode ends.
A typical cliffhanger ends when something is either in doubt about a character (e.g., what will they do next? or will they survive?) or when some long held secret has finally been revealed but we are not given the privilege of seeing how the characters will react (e.g., we see shocked expressions and then BAM cut to the credits)

Mad Men certainly has some episodes like this but more often then not its episodes end, not with revealed plot points but with the inner revelations of its characters. A majority of the final scenes are inconclusive or strangely off-putting. As viewers we do not exactly know what is happening or why the episode ends so abruptly. But even so, the endings are tense, with us left begging "What will happen next?"

As an example, in season 4 episode 5 "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" we see Sally going in to her new counselor's office and we have no idea why it feels so ominous but it does. We're completely thrown off: should we be afraid of the counselor herself (is she some kind of pedophile?), should we be afraid of Sally getting counseling because it will mess her up emotionally, should we be afraid of her getting counseling because it will actually help her but then in helping her it will create more conflict with Betty, her mom, or should we not be afraid at all? These moments are conflicted on multiple levels and often we have no idea why. We just know something is terribly wrong. 

I have never seen so many scenes where people were hugging or being intimate or sharing any kind of seemingly normal moment with each other where all those moments left me entirely unsettled or looking on in disgust or being filled with a pervading sense of dread. And more often then not an episode will end this way, in a moment of utter uncertainty, thus acting as a kind of cliffhanger. It leaves me wanting more, if only to resolve the tension. The only problem is the next episode is exactly the same, filling me with more and more tension (and dread!). And for some reason this makes me love the show. I love all these dissonant unresolved chords. I love continually coming back for more of that loathsome sinking feeling in my stomach.

4. Because it makes affairs (and other moral dilemmas) unattractive but also lets viewers decide for themselves how to respond.

As a kid I always felt so dirty when a character on a TV show had an affair with someone they were not married to. I almost did not want to look, it made me so uncomfortable. I would also get mad because I felt like the creators of the show were telling the world it was acceptable to sleep around with people when you were married, that it was excusing and even commending adultery to its audience. Ooohhh, look how thrilling adultery is! But more than any other show, Mad Men has helped me to see the creators of a drama might have entirely other motives in mind, that to depict immorality, even somewhat ambivalently, is not to condone it but to warn against it.

Sure, Don Draper (and many others) gets to sleep with droves of beautiful women, but he also gets incredibly hurt (as well as inflicting a lot of hurt himself) by all those women, even as he abandons them and lives as if they never existed. Apart from their beauty and the fleeting intoxicated passion they experience in the infancy of their flings, what exactly is glamorous or even desirable about Don Draper's relationships with women? The whole elongated sequence of his womanizing is one gigantic warning: This is not how you want to live your life. This is not how you should treat women. If you live this way you will never be satisfied.

And the show does all this without being preachy, and as a result is a better advocate for sexual and emotional fidelity than any more straightforward "Christian" drama might be. And this is true for all the show's characters; the onus is put back on the viewers: it is up to us whether or not we want to ask ourselves "Is this how I want to live my life?"

5. Because it makes you feel very very sad.
Whenever I think of Don Draper I get this ache deep in my stomach. I feel sad and repulsed and contemplative. Like with much of human history I look on knowing I cannot change the past but am compelled to ask "What could we have done differently?"

As a Christian I watch Mad Men from the perspective that God is very present and active in our universe but these characters exist as if there is no God at all. This also makes me very sad. A friend of mine shared this quote with me from pastor Tim Keller, a quote my friend (who is also a pastor) believes could be a thesis statement for the show:

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.

This all-pervasive sadness is what makes the show great. There is hardly a hug, embrace, smile, or moment of laughter without the subtext of pain, confusion, corruption, and moral ambivalence. There is hardly a moment throughout Mad Men that we are allowed to purely enjoy; everything in some way is conflicted. And so, it may often be hard to watch, but Mad Men exists to challenge it viewers. It makes us uncomfortable in the hopes of causing us to react somehow.

Is that merely an open elevator shaft or is Don peering 
into the empty cosmic void surging within us all?

6. Because there is more going on than we could ever comprehend in one sitting.

My typical reaction to a Mad Men episode is this: "What just happened? What did I just see? What was that about?" Honestly, my default post-Mad Men disposition is disorientation. I do not even know what to think. In response, I typically venture to the AVClub to read their review of the episode, a website who is doing some incredibly in-depth, incisive, and serious critical analyses of TV shows. They have helped me to see that Mad Men is not merely deep or important but also an immensely layered and intentionally symbolic show.

Symbolism at work: Don Draper in the fetal position. 
It is more than the scope of this article to go into detail about the layers in any particular episode or how the AVClub goes about illuminating them, but a particularly good example is season 6's "The Quality of Mercy," which has numerous references to babies, Freudian psychology, and men's innate longing to return to the womb. Indeed, this single article manages to unpack the depth of this particular episode but also to define the entire show's thesis.

To cut to the chase, Mad Men is a show that will reward multiple viewings over the course of one's life. It is entertaining on a story level, but depending on one's experiences and education, it will mean different things at different times and is therefore worth watching again, and perhaps even again.

7. Because the story of Don Draper could be both a real story or an extended metaphor.
Man Men is certainly about a bunch of Madison Avenue New York ad men. It is about Don Draper (Dick Whitman), SterlingCooperDraperPrice (Sterling Cooper and Partners), and the changes in American culture in the 1960's. It is personal and historical. At the same time, depending on how one looks at it, the entire show could all be an extended metaphor of America and the American Dream (or should I say the death of the American Dream?). While certainly rooted in definite geographical places and historical events Mad Men consistently plays around with subtle surrealism, which lends itself to a meta-interpretation, that it is about more than its particularities, that it is fable for all times. And so Don Draper transcends an individual character and instead become The American Male and his story is the demise of The American Male. The fable is a warning and a lament. It is an object lesson, but the story is so well told we fail to realize we are being preached at.

8. Because, sure, Don Draper's a monster, but he is certainly not a Monster.
I owe this point entirely to a recent AVClub article "Don Draper is No Antihero", which posits that despite all his flaws Don Draper is not like the other conflicted protagonists (or are they antagonists?) that helm some of the greatest television shows from the past decade and a half. Though often compared to Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Frank Underwood, Don Draper is not a murderous sociopath, managing, even through all his despicableness, to maintain his humanity and the potential for redemption. As we see the tough-guy facade crumble over the years we begin to realize Dick Whitman is nothing but a scared little boy in constant search for a mother to love him and protect him and tell him he is special.

Of course there are redeemable and empathic traits in the other TV characters Draper is compared to (especially Tony Soprano), but those other characters are always succumbing to the monster within whereas Draper is always truly wrestling with it. The same could be said for Mad Men's many other characters. They are all despicable to varying degrees but they never quite cross over into comic book villain territory. Even when they act as archetypes for a certain kind of man from a certain kind of era (Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell especially come to mind) they continually manage represent a conflicted humanity, showing us even a monster deserves compassion, even a monster can change, and sometimes even monsters are powerless to change the world around them.

9. Because it haunts me for days on end
My wife and I took to Mad Men late in the game, only starting to watch it sometime while the last half of season 6 was airing. But we did not binge watch it and I am glad for that. Honestly, 1-2 episodes of Mad Men a week is about all I can take, as the characters and images and ideas linger in my mind for days afterward. The life of Don Draper hangs like a cloud over my life. I compare his life to my own, always thinking "Is Don Draper like me? What kind of person am I? Am I acting like Don Draper?" And ultimately, "What is Matthew Weiner trying to tell me!?"

To me this is a mark of the utmost greatness, to create a work of art that permeates people's lives, to establish characters that become a presence in our psyches. Mad Men, like all great works of art, is not merely defined by its genre description—in this case a historical television drama—because it manages to transcend it specificity, becoming an extended tone poem on human existence.

So, as season 7 and the entire series comes to an end this spring it is clear the work of Mad Men as a cultural artifact will continue on. The plot may wrap itself up—no matter how inconclusive, unsettling, and unsatisfying it turns out to be—but its ideas will always be lying in wait in hopes of ambushing our safeguarded existential slumber. That is, our continuing failure to admit just how damaged and self-centered we all are. Mad Men may be an homage to an increasingly bygone era, of male dominance and white privilege, and thus we may be tempted to see its tale as increasingly archaic or a critique of a culture in decline. But what if Mad Men, like any work of art worthy of endurance in the mind of the public, is telling the same stories we have been asking ourselves since we began recording our histories, asking the same questions, stirring us up to figure out again and again what it means to be human?


Jake T said...

Man. I watched the first episode and couldn't through any more--the existential dread and self loathing was so heavy, I couldn't work though it.

PostConsumer Reports said...

That's hilarious Jake. Yes, you need to be willing to endure over 70 hours of existential dread.