Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fractal brilliance of Mad Men

with 4 comments

It’s hard to believe it, but Mad Men has been off the air for the entire time I’ve been writing this blog. (The finale of its fourth season aired on October 17, 2010, or just over a month before my introductory post.) In the year and a half since, I’ve discovered a lot of good and bad television: I fell out of love with Glee, dove headfirst into Community, Downton Abbey, and Breaking Bad, and apparently even watched a few episodes of Smash. But in all that time, I haven’t really had a chance to talk about the show that, more than any other televised drama of the past few years, has changed the way I think about storytelling in any medium. And while I don’t expect to start posting episode recaps anytime soon—that way lies madness, as Rich Juzwiak of Gawker recently pointed out—the show’s return gives me a chance to reflect on what is already starting to look like the best chance we’ve had in a long time to watch a great extended narrative reach its conclusion. And even if the show doesn’t manage to sustain the level of excellence it has maintained for so long (although Sunday’s premiere was a very encouraging sign), it’s still going to be fascinating.

Mad Men has been discussed endlessly, of course, but I’d like to focus on two related narrative aspects of the show, one immediately visible, the other only apparent over time. Let’s start with the latter. I’ve spoken before about the single greatest difficulty in making good television: the fact that a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have a single episode, or one season, or five years to tell a story. (Hence the predicament of a show like Twin Peaks, which burns off all of its best ideas in its first ten episodes and is left scrambling for more.) Mad Men, to an extent that I think is unique in recent television drama, has managed to remain shapely and satisfying no matter how you slice it. Its pilot is a perfect short movie with an unforgettable final shot, and if the show had simply ended there, with Vic Damone’s swelling rendition of “The Street Where You Live,” many of us would have been left with fifty minutes that we’d never forget. Yet the first season, ending with “The Wheel,” found a perfect shape as well, as has every subsequent year, as the show moves effortlessly through a series of ascending narrative climaxes. (Just the titles of each season finale are enough to give me the chills: “Meditations In an Emergency”; “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”; “Tomorrowland.”)

The result, to put things in as nerdy a way as possible, is what I can only describe as a sort of narrative scale invariance—that property, common to fractals and other self-similar objects, in which each part is similar to that of the whole. And this applies to individual episodes as well. Mad Men benefits from a glorious fineness of detail, in which the smallest touches resonate with the largest overall themes, so that a single shot or moment can encapsulate an entire season. The first thing that catches anyone’s eye about Mad Men is the show’s design: it’s one of the most visually seductive series I’ve ever seen. And while this certainly hasn’t hurt its popular appeal, it isn’t a superficial factor, but an essential part of the show’s composed storytelling, in which art direction, costume design, and music are inseparable parts of the narrative. When Betty Draper descends the stairs in “For Those Who Think Young” to the strains of “Song of India,” it’s an image that ties up everything the show has been about up to that point, only to be ironically echoed when the same song recurs ten episodes later in “The Jet Set.” To dismiss these pleasures as incidental is to miss the point entirely: this is a show in which the glossiest effects can turn around to blindside you with emotion.

All of these qualities were on display in last night’s season premiere. Above all else, the show continues to be a model of swift, facile storytelling, with small gags and throwaways nicely interspersed with the big dramatic moments. (I especially liked Lane Pryce’s little dance, and Pete’s wistful line: “Maybe just a beagle to scare off gophers.”) Jessica Paré’s instantly iconic scene reminds us that the show, like most great works of art, has no qualms about giving the audience what it wants, even as it surprises us with the consequences. That fine, fractal quality of detail remains, as the show closes in on unexpected images—a shaving brush, a lost wallet, a baby’s behind—and uses them to hint at larger themes. And it continues to benefit from its great cast, which taught me a lot about the power of ensembles, and which grows in richness with every season. At this point, the show’s ambition is matched only by its control: the premiere is spaced at a capacious ninety minutes, taking us through everything from racial politics to racy burlesque, yet there isn’t a wasted moment, and it’s all one piece. Where Matthew Weiner and his collaborators will take the show from here is anyone’s guess, but I know I’ll be watching closely. And taking notes.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2012 at 10:06 am

Posted in Television

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. thoughtful commentary…


    March 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  2. Thanks! Believe me, I could talk about this show for hours…


    March 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm

  3. I’ve never watched Mad Men before, stumbling here by chance thinking about fractal narratives. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful review, thanks to you I discovered Jessica Paré’s performance, it is indeed iconic (and much better than the original).

    Eli Parra

    October 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm

  4. Wow! Thanks—that definitely qualifies as my good deed for the day.


    October 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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