Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Centrifuge

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

At this point, it’s a cliché to say that Mad Men is clearly one of the greatest television shows of all time. Yet it’s hard to pin down why. I’ve said before that the show displays a kind of fractal brilliance, in which each component stands beautifully on its own while adding up to a greater whole, and for both casual and devoted fans of the show, it’s easy to focus on those stunning pieces: the performances, the art direction, the music, the costume design, any one of which can serve as an entry point for the show’s deeper meanings, as readers of Tom and Lorenzo know. Still, this doesn’t explain why all these elements happened to coalesce in this particular series. We could chalk it up to Matthew Weiner’s genius, but that simply begs the question. And the more I watch Mad Men, the more I begin to suspect that Weiner and his collaborators stumbled across a richer vein of material than even they realized at first. It might have been intuition, luck, or a shrewd sense of what would make for a great extended narrative, but whatever it was, it has shaped the series in ways that none of us could have anticipated at the time, and which become all the more clear as the show strays further from its original conception.

At its heart, Mad Men isn’t a show about advertising, but about change. From the very beginning, this was baked into the premise: every episode of the series benefits from the best kind of historical irony, as we already know more about how the world of these characters will change than they could ever guess for themselves. And the fact that the show’s creators knew that all of its characters’ lives would be altered simply by the passage of time—at least if it was allowed to run for long enough—has granted them an unusual degree of freedom in systematically breaking down and rebuilding what this show is all about. When Mad Men premiered, it was about Don’s marriage and the people he saw at work every day. Today, Don has divorced and remarried; the agency that we came to love over the first three seasons is gone; and many of the employees of Sterling Cooper have dispersed, died, or vanished. As consistent as the show’s tone has remained, it’s hard to think of another series that has so relentlessly given up what it has laboriously established, and not simply because of a star’s departure or another external event.

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

And the effects of this can clearly be seen in this season’s premiere, which I finally had the chance to watch last night. Even by the standards of Mad Men, which rarely rushes to get to the point and often assembles its stories with a kind of narrative pointillism, this was a slow, scattered episode, although never less than absorbing. It follows four major plotlines that rarely intersect, and it has a particularly striking way of introducing new members of the ensemble: either they’re presented as important players we just haven’t seen yet, like Don’s neighbor or the teenage girl that Betty has befriended, or they’re given a few scenes with only the slightest hint of a later payoff, like the bookkeeper on the second floor who seems so insistent on ingratiating himself with the staff downstairs. Part of this is thanks to the fact that Weiner, for once, isn’t operating without a fixed end point in mind—he knows that the show is going to run for exactly two more seasons, and he’s methodically laying in the pieces for the endgame. But it’s also a reflection of what the show’s style has become. Everything is in flux, people appear and disappear, and even the ones we’re pretty sure will stick around are spiraling off on their own courses.

The result isn’t an episode that I’d show anyone who was encountering the series for the first time, but as an indication of where Mad Men will go next, it’s riveting. There’s a moment in the episode where Don and Megan show slides from their trip to Hawaii, which inevitably evokes Don’s famous speech at the end of the first season:

This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel.

But Mad Men isn’t a carousel, either. It’s a centrifuge. When the show began, the characters were all suspended in the same solution, with a shared culture and set of values. As the show spins on its axis, they’re being separated out, by death, divorce, or time. I don’t know yet how the show will balance its centrifugal forces with the needs of televised storytelling, but if this weekend’s premiere is any indication, the results will be problematic and fascinating. Don remains at the show’s center, but as we draw closer to the end, the wheel continues to spin, and the people he loves will be taken away one by one.

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2013 at 9:02 am

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