Saturday, July 06, 2013

Mad Men: The Slow Burn

Now that it has been two years since my last post, I thought it best to check in. I am in dissertation purgatory as well as teaching full-time, so I did not see any of the sixth season of Mad Men until this holiday weekend when I celebrated Independence Day by binge-watching all the episodes piled up on the dvr. The list of movies I have missed grows longer weekly, once I am finally done with grad school I hope to catch up. Or not.

Although I mostly avoided spoilers, I did hear that some loyal viewers were not impressed with this latest season, rumblings of too much soap opera and not enough office politics. To be fair, this series has always been a soap opera, but one set on Madison Avenue during advertising’s creative revolution, and also one with emotional complexity, depth, and a mastery of slow-burn storytelling.

As an example, the exchange of glances between Don and his daughter Sally that ended season six reminded me of the glance Don exchanged with a woman sitting beside him at a bar that ended season five. Rough road that Don traveled during the dozen episodes in between, but this parallel may speak to his ultimate redemption – whether or not Don would maintain his fifth-season monogamy was a fun cliff-hanger, but not anywhere near as important as his decision to be honest with his children about his own childhood. He came a long way in one season, sadly much of it seeing double.

Mad Men has always had these moments that link elements of its narrative far apart chronologically, such as the hand-holding between Don and Peggy that linked her departure from the agency in season five with her first day on the job at the beginning of season one. Matthew Weiner, the auteur that created Don and the world he inhabits, is a master of epiphany. These moments of grace or destruction require long hours of attentive viewing to get the full payoff, but when it comes it is sometimes worthy of the last ten minutes of Godfather Part Two, or James Joyce’s earliest narratives (The Dead is my personal favorite). It is for this reason that I trust Weiner the storyteller; when episodes drag I know they are leading somewhere interesting.

Although there has been debate about authenticity since the series premiered in 2007, Weiner and his team have put considerable energy and expense into maintaining a genuine sense of time and place. I certainly recognized the Manhattan of my childhood from the beginning. The costume design, soundtrack, and art direction have always been among the show’s great strengths. The season six poster, created by illustrator Brian Sanders to echo his distinctive work of the 1960s, is a perfect case in point. The surreal airplane in the background was, I believe, the artist’s nod to his own pioneering work for TWA. The memories that style evokes for me are worth a whole lot of operatics, and while the final season is in the works, I get to prepare a possible special topics course on Mad Men and Advertising Culture in the 1960s.

Post script: I have received some thoughtful comments from readers that I haven't responded to for the same reason that it's been 733 days since my last entry. I do appreciate the feedback, and will share some of these insights in a future post.