Editor’s Note: This post was written having only viewed Mad Men Season 5 through Episode 11, “The Other Woman.”
In the nascent days of The Wise Guise, when gathering with my wife, Clayton, and Colin at McAlister’s Deli over lunch, we talked about what The Wise Guise would be. We discussed initial blog post ideas, vision for the site, the name, the logo, the format, etc. Upon discussing the notion of a unique twist on episode recaps of various shows, we decided that would be a silly endeavor. After all, so many blogs, websites, and critics partake in this daily/weekly tradition started by Alan Sepinwall (and still mastered by the OG himself). What could we bring to the table that they didn’t? While we firmly believed our contribution to the blogosphere would be unique takes and twists on old ideas with the grandiose vision of being a blog about everything (and therefore nothing all at the same time), how could we compete with the other professional writers who recap wittily and insightfully every week?
We decided we couldn’t. So discussions of TV shows took place within the He Said, She Said column or as a part of a broader piece discussing a character, a series, an episode, a Netflix suggestion, or pop culture in general. When we found writers who could piercingly analyze a popular show, we added them to the roster and watched the new readers tune in consistently. We fielded questions about why we don’t discuss shows like Game of Thrones. And, offline, we had discussions about the challenges of blogging about pop culture and buzzworthy topics when also reading Grantland.com (Clayton often tells me to stop linking to the top-tier work of Grantland and stop reading it as well), Alan Sepinwall, or other professional writers. After all, after reading their posts, it’s easy for us to often feel as if we have nothing to contribute.
But it’s a unique challenge that we face, and one that we have fun meeting head on. We track our visits to the site, which posts do well consistently, and what doesn’t. What unique posts can we write and gather from our talented friends so that we gain new readers who will stick around and read our other content, share it with their friends, and continue to put successful, thought-provoking, smile-inducing content on the web.
If it sounds like we take the blog too seriously, we do and we don’t. We want to provide fun and thoughtful content for our friends, family, and the thousands of other readers who have made their way to our site.
I begin this post with this brief history of The Wise Guise to provide context for what runs through my head when endeavoring to discuss the enthralling fifth season of Mad Men.
The thesis (unwisely hidden in the sixth paragraph) of my post is this: Mad Men is on pace to, when all is said and done after seven seasons, be the greatest television drama ever. It’s in the lead. It just can’t screw it up. And I don’t think it will.
I’m someone who watched Mad Men the night it premiered. It wasn’t the adrenaline, roller-coaster ride, mind-bending start to series like Lost or 24. It was more like the pilot to The Sopranos or The Wire, giving you a lot to process, filled with subtlety, engrossing you, but not necessarily leaving you hanging on for the next episode. There was no adrenaline rush to cause you to instantly crave more. Furthermore, on that Sunday night, nothing in me felt like I was watching one of the greatest TV shows of all time. I didn’t feel the need to tell anyone about it or recommend it. I watched the first half of the season sporadically, and waited to complete season one on DVD, right before season 2 began. I then digested season 2 in much the same way. Beginning with season 3, I watched it weekly with my friends on Scotch Sundays, when I began to get hooked much more. I began to discuss with people, rewatching episodes/seasons, reading recaps, finding the subtleties, and becoming a student of Weiner’s obsessive, accurate-detail-oriented take on the 1960s filled with universally complex characters.
**Disclaimer: I’ve watched all of The Sopranos, many episodes multiple times. I’ve only seen seasons one of The Wire and Breaking Bad. So in this great debate, I still have much to watch. For some of you, this will discredit my opinion and thesis. For others, this will hopefully endear me to you as, despite my penchant for being a nerd, still an average joe TV viewer.**
To me, though, what began (the second golden age of television) with The Sopranos is ending with Mad Men. And I believe that, once the series is finished, it will be the reigning champion, holding the title of “greatest in TV history.” The facts that Weiner worked under David Chase, and wrote Mad Men as a pet project only to be passed on by HBO and Showtime, beginning AMC’s rise to original content dominance are well known, but still a part of the mystique.
What else does Mad Men have going for it?
- It doesn’t hit you over the face. – I’ve had plenty of conversations with strangers and friends about the series. Many find it to be the most overhyped show on TV. Others argue that it’s really good, but not great. Some argue that it’s boring. Those who cry “boring” never gave it a chance from the beginning, dropping in on an episode here or there, not sticking with it through the first couple seasons, etc. As for the rest, I’m okay with the criticism. Any great show will be criticized. What I love about Mad Men is that it’s the anti-Lost. (Note: I LOOOVED LOST!) It doesn’t hit you over the head with mystery, shock and awe, and a ticking time bomb cliffhanger at the end of every episode. It has the seriousness and dark humor of The Sopranos, but applied to everyday life of people who work in offices. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not. Weiner longs to tell the tale of these characters in the 1960s as it most likely would have been on Madison Avenue in New York. And he does it masterfully.
- There’s something for everyone. – My wife classically tells people that she stuck with Mad Men early on for the settings and the costumes. The clothes hook some people. The glamour (no matter how dirty and insecure underneath) hooks others. The insight into the fledgling beginning of mass marketing and tricking the consumer intrigues others. The soap operatic storylines keep others coming back for more. But, amongst it all, there are the characters – their lives, their choices, their growth (or lackthereof), their victories, their heartbreaks, and what each of their actions, choices, mistakes, and strained expressions say about each of us. Other great shows like Breaking Bad and Deadwood aren’t accessible to everyone. And that’s a big tally in the Mad Men column.
- Consistency – Almost through five seasons and, to me, the show has only gotten better. Better than any other series, in my opinion, the show builds off of itself continually to make decisions like Peggy’s and Joan’s in “The Other Woman” resonate so powerfully it felt like a season finale. As the 1960s progressed, life sped up, spun into chaos, and became less controllable. As such, the series gives us more buzzworthy, series-altering moments now in an episode than we often got in most of one of the early seasons. And because we’ve been with these complex characters (the ones we hate, the ones we love, and the ones we just can’t decide on) the entire way, the payoffs are huge.
- Everything Matters – For better or worse, when a big-time showrunner like the ones running premium cable shows today has the amount of control that Weiner has, there is greatest potential for the story ultimately told on screen to match what the original storyteller imagined, worked through, and created. Many point to David Simon’s The Wire versus a primetime show like Lost, where you leave the world more satisfied that most of what you watched mattered to the big-picture story eventually told. I think these analyses compare apples to oranges, but one pertinent point remains: Weiner has the potential to tell the most cohesive, consistent, pure story to air on the small screen yet. Many criticize the final season of The Wire. Even The Sopranos had storylines in later seasons that seemed unnecessary. In my opinion, no show has been this consistent this far into the story (almost complete with five of seven seasons). In fairness, The Sopranos was and had a handful of speedbumps in the last 20 episodes. But Weiner was there and can learn from history, putting his darling ahead of the mob tale where he cut his teeth.
- Characters, Characters, Characters – A show lives and dies by its characters – the ones from the beginning, the minor ones that develop into major ones, the new characters that inevitably enter as life changes and other characters move on, the occasional return of old characters, and how well all of them interact with the main protagonist. From top to bottom, loved to hated and everywhere in between, Mad Men succeeds in creating deep, complex characters that leave us wondering how we feel but captivated by every choice they make.
To wrap up this final reason and my entire argument re: Mad Men’s potential to become the reigning all-time best television series upon its completion, I’ll include two beautiful sequences involving arguably the top two fan favorites, Don and Joan. As most viewers know, Don and Joan don’t interact hardly at all one-on-one. And yet, due to the fact that they’re the most powerful and feared people on the show, beautiful human beings, and as fragile of characters on the inside as they are confident and sexually voracious on the outside, both times we’ve gotten scenes from these characters, they’ve been memorable as some of the best of the series.
Joan and Don in Season 3 (Link wont embed)
The mutual respect. The subtext. The subtle exchange of glances. The tension. It’s a well-acted scene out of context. But, in the context of the story and knowing the characters, it becomes a memorable scene.
Joan and Don in Season 5:
This one takes the cake. There’s wit, there’s sarcasm, there’s understanding, there’s sexual tension, there’s restraint, and there’s that same relationship revealed in the rare moment from season three. But neither of these characters are the same. Life has dealt them new challenges, successes, and failures. History isn’t different, but it has more layers. And this makes the scene more powerful. The characters are more vulnerable with one another and themselves.
Therein lies the magic behind Mad Men. Given the opportunity to get to know these characters over five seasons continually results in higher payoffs, richer moments between characters, and more heart-wrenching storylines. They’re the same characters and same settings, but time has changed them. It’s storytelling at its best… it’s not trying too hard nor is it being lazy. It’s escapism that peers directly into who we are at our deepest layers and who we pretend to be to the world. It’s madness. And it may just be the best ever.