Mad Men and the test of time
In the end, all television shows—if they run for long enough, and whether they like it or not—are secretly about time. What sets Mad Men apart is that it understood this from the beginning, despite the fact that its early days were so fraught with uncertainty. Reading the fascinating oral history recently published by The Hollywood Reporter, I was struck by what a gamble it all was: AMC was so desperate to get into the game of prestige television that it financed the pilot out of its own pocket, shopping it around later in hopes of finding a studio that would partner with it on the actual series. Few, if anyone, had any illusions about the show’s chances, as Elizabeth Moss recalls: “I remember standing on the rooftop of Silver Cup Studios with Matt [Weiner] and we just looked at each other: ‘Well, that was really great.’ We had no idea if it was going to go any further than that.” Yet from the very first scene, it was obvious that this was a show about change, both historical and personal, told in a deliberate, incremental fashion. It demanded an internal timeline of ten years, spanning the full decade of the sixties, to tell the story it deserved. And the fact that it succeeded is a permanent miracle of a medium that so often seems designed to frustrate viewers and creators alike.
What’s even more remarkable is that the show survived its entire run on its own terms. We don’t yet know how the series will end, but whatever form it takes, it will be the conclusion that Weiner wanted, not spun out of compromise and the vagaries of ratings and contracts. There were no major cast changes or shakeups, aside from the ones that the narrative itself imposed: we never saw Jon Hamm announce on Instagram, as Nina Dobrev did yesterday for The Vampire Diaries, that he had decided reluctantly to move on. There were some close calls: according to Weiner, the negotiations with the network after the fourth season were so tense that he called up Aaron Sorkin for insight on how to live with his removal from a show he’d created. (Sorkin’s advice: “Don’t ever watch it.”) Preserving that level of independence requires a certain steely reserve, and we glimpse it in the stories of how Weiner refused to relax Hamm’s shooting schedule to free him up to star in Gone Girl. But the result, at least so far, has been the most rigorously organized long game in the history of television, and even a flameout toward the end won’t minimize that accomplishment. Throughout it all, Weiner has treated time like a member of his writing staff, and he’s no more inclined to let it slip out of his control than he is with anyone else.
And time’s hand can be felt throughout the first episode of the final season. Don Draper looks much the same as always: he’s as unchanging, in his way, as Forrest Gump, even as tectonic shifts are taking place below the surface. But the signs of age are visible everywhere else, and not just in Roger Sterling’s mustache. Part of it is makeup and costuming, along with the natural passage of the years since the pilot was shot, and rather than denying the latter, as so many shows might do, Mad Men embraces it. Its impact is there even as the show briefly withholds its strongest card: the growth before our eyes of Kiernan Shipka from a six-year-old girl in the background to practically the show’s second lead, with traces in her features of her fictional parents as haunting as those in Boyhood. The fact that Shipka turned out to be such an arresting presence is another example of the unpredictable factors that shape all television series: the fate of Bobby Draper, who barely registers, is a window onto a lesser version of the show in which Don’s children were both nonentities. But every character carries a history on his or her face, with Ken Cosgrove’s eyepatch serving as a hint for us to look more closely at everybody else. (Given the show’s love of dream sequences that can’t be distinguished from reality, I’m waiting for it to tip us off to a fantasy by showing us Ken with his patch over the other eye.)
As it happened, I watched the premiere of Mad Men only a few days after David Lynch announced on Twitter that he would not be directing the reboot of Twin Peaks, throwing the show’s revival on Showtime into doubt. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see the series return in some form, with or without him: evidently all of the scripts by Lynch and Mark Frost have been delivered, so the result will at least partially reflect its creators’ intentions. And the prospect of the show returning after twenty-five years, as it once promised, is so deeply, formally satisfying that I still want to see it, even if it isn’t quite what we wanted. (If nothing else, the contrast between how Kyle MacLachlan looks today and how he was depicted on the show as an older man reminds us of how much less interesting makeup can be compared to the real work of a quarter of a century.) Maybe, after a couple of decades, we’ll see Weiner return for another shot, but I doubt it. Few of the characters on Mad Men have ended up quite where they wanted or expected, but the series around them has accomplished everything it set out to do, and with the rise of the Netflix and miniseries models, it may be our last chance to see a show pull it off so beautifully from one week and year to the next. Time is the most fickle collaborator of all, far more than any network. And the fact that Weiner and his team have harnessed it so capably may stand as their most lasting achievement.