Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ambivalent Viewing: Season Four of Mad Men

The problem with Mad Men this season, and in fact sometimes in every season, is that creator Matthew Weiner is obsessed with letting character trump story (ironic for a network whose cutline is “Story Matters Here”). As a result, we have episodes such as one and three this year (and large swathes of Season Two) that have been nothing but character bits attached to little narrative drive. This is the exact opposite of films such as, let's say, Tranformers, which are nothing but plot/story and character is never even considered – I think both approaches are ill-conceived. The show's only thread this year that seems to connect it to 1964/1965 have been bits of dialogue in episode one (“Buy her some Beatles 45s.") and episode four (“Did you hear Malcolm X was shot this week?”). This is laziness. At least last year, the handling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was masterfully staged, as two characters discussed their problems as if it were still November 21, 1963. In the background of the scene, unnoticed by them, a TV announces a new era has begun (Kennedy's death). And yet. And yet. I still find myself compelled to watch this year.

After the disastrous first episode of Season Four of Mad Men a few weeks ago, I decided to give the show until episode four to find its legs. I was willing to do this because Season Three took until then to get at something. After episode two this season, I thought it was getting on the right track, and then episode three came. The show went on and on about Don's seemingly pointless pause in California when he again visits (this was the setting of the terrible Season Two) the one person, Anna (the wife of the dead man he impersonates), who knew he was Dick, not Don. It didn't seem to serve any purpose until it was revealed that she was dying of cancer. The news seemed to completely unmoor Don. Fortunately, the latter half when Don returns to New York, featuring Jared Harris as Lane Pryce – the transplanted, conflicted Brit partner in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency – took hold and the episode seemed to at least leaven the fractured, unfocused nonsense Mad Men has occasionally descended to.

So far this season, seeing Draper come completely unglued has been simultaneously deserved and sad. He deserves it, yet seeing someone so confident and focused on the surface start to show to the world the terrors he faces is fascinating. Watching Peggy and Pete reconcile, ironically over the announced pregnancy of his wife Trudy, was also strangely moving. At the end of episode four, as Peggy goes out with the young “in crowd” and Pete is meeting the old guard in the lobby, they exchange glances and smiles. It sums up the mutual acknowledgement that they have both made choices they are very comfortable with.

Sure, Mad Men is forced and fragmented, but there is still, for me, something worth hanging on to that I cannot quite define. Perhaps it is the era, an era of my childhood (even if in Seasons Two through Four, it has never seemed to really embrace what this era meant to the characters, or to us, watching from 2010); or perhaps, it is the characters I really like (Don, Peggy, Sterling, Pete, Joan and Cooper). It sure as hell ain't the story because quite frankly there barely is one. I'll continue to watch, though, because it's kinda easy to just leave the channel there since its lead-in, Rubicon, is becoming rather interesting (more on it as its first season comes to an end in a few weeks). What I am saying is I cannot really defend why I continue to watch Mad Men because there are so many reasons to stop, but for what it's worth – and it might not be worth much – I just want to see if it ultimately will get anywhere. That alone just might be enough to keep me coming back.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He will launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, on Tuesday, October 19th. More details to follow.

1 comment:

  1. Lazy writing seems to be an epidemic -- lately. Are we reaching the end of innovation? The ideas for new films, TV episodes, books, keep coming, but the follow-through implementation of narrative stories does not (e.g., Damages and the opposing lawyer). It has to be an entitlement thing...