Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mad Men's March Toward my Top 5 Shows of All Time

As it winds down with only 2 more episodes left, Mad Men is setting the masses up for something they may not like, I think. I'm not so sure this show was ever meant to be as popular as it became and I have feeling the majority of the people watching are not used to the complex and/or dark ending we might be getting. From the very first episode it plays like a very direct yet subtle version of a classic American novel of some sort. It's easy to see how everyone got caught up in the period accurate clothing, style and general references, but it's never really been about that. Well, not just that, anyway. On some level, those things serve to get into what has been one of the biggest themes of the series so far, which is the false surface of the American dream. But of course, like all great literature, it's not as simple as that either. The word a couple of my favorite professors would use was tension. There should always be tension between ideas, characters, concepts, themes. Great literature is not about direct symbols that can easily be deciphered like some code. And with every episode, even in the final stretch, I think Mad Men fits more and more into that category. The show just never tries to be "clever" and you never feel like the writers are showing off or winking at you. I don't think that alone necessarily makes it better than any other show, but it certainly makes it different.

Don Reads in his office
Don's a reader.
One example of this is the way they handled the waitress, Diana in these last few episodes. When Don first sees her he's taken by her, but you aren't entirely sure why that is, only that he finds her familiar. Then we get the whole piece about one of his great loves from early on in the series, Rachel, who he has a dream about before finding out she died. He's deeply affected by this and she bares some resemblance to Diana, though it's never explicitly stated he's making that connection. But then, if you think back on the series, he's had affairs with mostly brunettes and we've seen flashbacks of his childhood to a mysterious brunette that showed him kindness and he eventually lost his virginity to. And at the same time, the fact that Diana is running from something also makes her a reflection of Don himself. None of this is ever tied together for us. It's all there, in the mix, floating around and existing in this rich narrative, but never in a neat 1 to 1 ratio. Will it come together in the end? I hope not. This is the type of thing that will make this a re-watchable/re- readable and infinitely discuss-able masterpiece.

Watching the fall of Don Draper
Watching the Fall of Don Draper
Still, there are things that are pointing to a possible ending that may or may not be too on the nose. This week's episode, had several scenes that might point to the ending being connected to the opening credits imagery. At one point, Don, in his new office which might as well be a prison on top of the world, looks out the window and seems to be pushing against it to see if it opens. Later, he's at a meeting and before walking away from it to "ride the rails" like Sal Paradise in On The Road, he stares at an airplane flying high above. Then, we get Roger telling Peggy the story about a time he had to jump out of a boat, 20 feet into the water and how he was scared, but eventually did it. I don't think I have to paint the rest of that picture to say what this could lead to, and it may not necessarily be a bad ending, but it might be too telegraphed if I'm not reading this too literally. Again, it's about tension, so it's entirely possible these ideas are there only to suggest an option that may or may not be taken. And even if it does lead to that very literal fall of Draper, it might still be the right ending.

Sally Draper plastic bag
Perfectly safe.
One other piece that's important to note about these themes is that Mad Men gives us what I think is a historical but at the same time more modern vision of the realities of the American Dream from the perspective of classic American Literature in that it is careful to give context to issues of sex, race, appearances, socioeconomic status, etc. in ways that I'm not sure I've seen in any other story exploring the era(s). Clearly, the choice to leave a meeting and wander the world is only realistically available to someone like Don and while that is also never directly stated, it is there and obvious. A few episodes back someone said to him to his face that the only reason he was where he was is because he's handsome and he was clearly affected by it, recognizing a hard truth in that. But beyond that, he's white and male and at this point in the show, a millionaire. He doesn't need this job, financially. He's been searching for something else in it and hasn't found it, but still carries some privilege. Privilege he worked for in addition to privilege by gender and appearance. Joan didn't necessarily need the job either, but she needed it more than him in order to feel useful beyond her looks and cultural gender status. He's gotten by on surface masquerading as fulfillment. Then there's that scene where Shirley, one of the black secretaries at SC&P tells Roger she's quitting because going to McCann is not going to work for her. She says advertising is not comfortable for everybody and the implication is that the group she was working for was always more progressive and she's grateful. Her options are limited, but she's more aware of them than anyone else on the show. Again, tensions. These are ideas, moments, threads that are important to the overall but should not be tied into a neat bundle. They should remain in tension.

Peggy is cool
Peggy Olsen: Badass.
And while all this intellectual stuff is going on, we still get an enjoyable and fun show. A big part of this is because of a character like Peggy, who was always our surrogate in this world. It's through her we first meet everybody and begin to understand the world. It's her that we were supposed to root for and cry with from the start, and we did. Never has this type of character been handled better, in my opinion. I found myself at times wishing the show would just take a turn and focus exclusively on her or hoping she'd get a spin off. Of course, I'd rather just see a good ending now, but Peggy was likely my favorite character overall and I have no shame in admitting that, even though that's the easy answer, given her role. My next favorite is likely Sally, though, and I'm curious where she will end up. Her future in this world is probably the most in jeopardy, in spite of the strong young woman she's grown up to be. She's the only one that fully sees through both her parents' bullshit and isn't afraid to say so. But at the end of the day, the reality of that could lead her to dark places since in many ways, she's a lot like both of them. Tensions.

There's nothing I love more than a good ending and I'm really hoping Mad Men delivers on something I can think about as I re-watch it, which I will likely do very soon after it's done. Unless it ends in a cheesy mess, negating all my good feelings about the show. Somehow, I don't think it's going to miss the landing. There are too many tensions and loose threads right now to tie up and resolve in a simple package and I doubt they would try to do that. This will likely end up being one of my top 5 favorite shows of all time. But we'll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment