In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.
People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.
Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.
A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.
Weiner has made no secret of the literary influences either, chief among these John Cheever, whose preface to his own collected stories was required reading for Weiner prior to each new season of Mad Men: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light," Cheever wrote, "when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. … Here then is the last generation of chain smokers who woke the world with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’… and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, wherever you are.” The final season saw Don occasionally still wearing a hat, and Betty, his chain-smoking ex-wife, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
It also saw Don land where he always did after falling -- back figuratively in his domain -- having mined what seemed a long-awaited and authentic emotional awakening for profit via creation of the famous “Hilltop/I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial, which closed the show. Those who grew up seeing, hearing, and singing along with that commercial probably got a jolt: for my generation, it’s a more indelible and comforting reminder of childhood than any nursery rhyme or lullaby – and all the more insidious for it. The moment was also a logical return to Don’s Kodak Carousel pitch from the show’s first season -- an earlier appropriation and repurposing of authentic emotion. This underscores as well not just how complete and rounded Mad Men was, but also how much it was about advertising, and how complicit it made the viewer in the commercial world it both depicted and embodied (which may explain too the sheer amount of Mad Men exegesis – a kind of feedback loop of cultural-consumerist processing). Among the key moments and critical lines, one from this season jumped out for me: Roger Sterling (the inimitable John Slattery) angrily responding to his second ex-wife’s demand to be compensated for lost career opportunities: “What career?” he yells. “She was a consumer!” Does that not in some way seem directed at the audience? We’re at least partially to blame for behaving as if buying is a substitute for meaningful experience. Or that watching TV is.
There was always a pall of unpredictability about a Mad Men episode (or a season) – like a novel that goes down undesired and perhaps unpleasant paths but that compels continued reading. Those are the best kinds of novels anyhow, the ones that disturb or discomfit. The celebrated Italian novelist Elena Ferrante speaks of the concept of frantumaglia – fragments – in the writing process: “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably ... it’s as if from those splinters of a possible narrative come equal yet opposing forces that need to emerge clearly and, at the same time, to sink farther into the depths.” This seems an apt way, now that it’s over, to think about Mad Men, its creator’s aims, its central character’s entire way of being. (It is only an interesting coincidence that “Elena Ferrante” is a pen-name, and that the person writing under it has not been publicly identified.) Where do the bits and pieces of our collective and individual cultural memories originate? To a considerable extent, from the pen of a copywriter. It’s a cliché to say at this point, but worth repeating anyway, that this should disturb us.