Lessons from Great TV #9: Mad Men
Earlier this year, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, made headlines by arguing that critics and viewers should wait until an entire season of a television show is complete before picking apart individual episodes. While Simon’s position wasn’t entirely consistent—he also seemed to think that audiences weren’t paying enough attention to the finer points of the story—he raises a fair point. With the rise of the great serial dramas, it can be hard to tell where a show is going with a character or a subplot, and it’s often true that you don’t see the full shape of a season until the last episode airs. One could even say that it’s meaningless to talk about self-contained episodes at all, any more than you’d review an individual chapter of a novel: when a show is operating at a high enough level, it all feels like one seamless web of narrative, and aside from the occasional striking experiment, like the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, it’s often hard to remember where one episode leaves off and another begins. (Incidentally, as far as the recent debate over binge-watching is concerned, I can only say that watching this past season of Mad Men one week at a time gave it a cumulative power that I don’t think would have existed if I’d seen it all in a couple of sittings. Viewing it over the course of three months made me feel as though I’d lived through something real with these characters, and it only made the final episode—and final shot—all the more powerful.)
Perhaps the best recent example of a show’s conclusion putting the rest of the season into perspective is the final episode of Mad Men’s third season, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” While the rest of the season had been far from uneventful—among other things, it included both the Kennedy assassination and an unfortunate incident with a riding lawn mower—the series also seemed more willing than ever to take its time, building long sequences around a mood, a sense of place, a hint of things to come. Yet all the while, the show was assembling its narrative pieces in plain sight, as methodically as a game of Mouse Trap, and in the season finale, the trap was sprung. There’s a dazzling succession of plot turns, the lead characters make some irrevocable choices, and before we know it, the show has blown up its own foundations—Don’s marriage and the offices of Sterling Cooper—and left us with a fresh start. It’s thrilling to watch even now, and as creator Matthew Weiner observes on his commentary track, it’s closest thing you can have to an action movie that consists entirely of scenes of people talking in a room. There’s something peculiarly satisfying about seeing the show indulge in the sort of meaty payoffs and gags, like Joan’s big entrance or Pete’s exchange in the elevator with Harry, that it often eschews as too straightforward. And none of this would be nearly as effective without the slow build of the episodes that came before it, which the finale retroactively clarifies, illuminates, and justifies, all to the strains of “Shahdaroba.”
Tomorrow: Television’s brightest timeline.