After a month, the consensus on this sixth season of AMC’s Mad Men appears to be that the show has lost a step. The writing is still sharp, yes, the art direction immaculate, its march through history keen enough. But something’s missing. The critiques I’ve read have centered on Don, a lost sailor tossed about in the waves of his life and unwilling or unable to reach for rescue. He lacks tension, motivation, a challenge to face. He’s become, in a word, boring. It’s a fair critique, and one I agree with: Don’s become bland and repetitive this season, bloodlessly reliving his bad habits like Sisyphus in a skinny tie. Roger is the one in therapy, but it’s Don who’s quietly having a midlife crisis: after working so hard to become Don Draper, he takes no pleasure in it. He’s not even sure what it means. It is not compelling television. But it is not trying to be compelling television.
TV criticism is a weird thing. It’s a young genre and, like all forms of opinionated writing in the post-blog era, one subject to a number of pressures as it attempts to maintain — or establish — its shape. TV recaps largely serve the needs of the water cooler, becoming a hub for both websites’ devoted readers and haphazard Google clickers to rate and relate to last night’s episode. There are too many TV shows for everyone to watch and the biggest — mostly singing reality competitions — don’t quite carry the weight of who shot J.R. or the series finale of Seinfeld. TV watching is mainstream, but TV viewers are niche. Recaps serve that niche, but in doing so, they tend to take on the role of a friend or co-worker, ooh-ing and ahh-ing with you rather than serving up insight.
This approach works when serial shows fall into certain categories: the twists and thrills of 24 and LOST, the shared guilty pleasure of Gossip Girl or Real Housewives, the rare show that succeeds in both (Pretty Little Liars). It’s not bad for rating the humor level of one-off sitcom episodes. But Mad Men stopped being a show about plot a long time ago. It has become a show about relationships and mood: the financial state of Sterling Cooper Draper Price or the revelations of Don’s past run a distant second to why its protagonists make choices, not the choices themselves. It has become a dive into the interior.
I don’t like to categorize creative products into the false hierarchy of entertainment vs. art, but if we must make a distinction, it’s this one: art is not being made for you to like. Likability is a fundamental concern of the TV recap, a process that atomizes television into weekly yes/no binaries instead of recognizing a serialized work in its intended aggregate. TV recaps and their participatory culture often seem ready to throw a show to the lions after a bad episode; the current Mad Men backlash, based on three or four hours out of dozens, already feels half-buried in falling sky. Is Mad Men art? Is anything? I don’t care. But it is not being made for you to like.
I am not clearing the show to make boring episodes. But despite suffering the writer’s room betrayal of LOST’s final season, I remain optimistic and open to the possibility that Mad Men, so carefully directed and developed over the previous five years, is making decisions purposefully — that it has not become bad, it has merely become, and chosen to become, unsatisfactory. Don has reached the pinnacle of success, by exterior accounts: he’s an award winner, a creative director, the owner of a Manhattan apartment, a father, a husband. The banality of Don’s unhappiness is the banality of every 40-something’s: yup, this is really as good as it gets. You’re frustrated? Imagine how Don feels.
I’m sure Mad Men will have a windier road to take him on as the season progresses, but it’s also a true ensemble now, and the other characters have vivid, engaging lives. There’s plenty of visceral pleasure to be found there on a per-episode basis. As for Don, if this is the end of the road, perhaps this is where he was headed all along. You can get out of the car — you just don’t get to drive.
Did not know George Clooney was formerly married to Mrs. Roger Sterling.
Mad Men S6E01 is stressing me out.
It is so clearly articulated in this episode that Patrick Wilson is a lonely old married dude who hasn’t slept with anyone else in years and a young woman walks right into his house and kisses him. The next 20 minutes of television depicts the most plausible scenario possible; the dudes lobbing the backlash at this episode are the same schmucks sitting on message boards for the last 15 years rating the appearances of Hollywood actresses and bragging about how they totally wouldn’t fuck them. Good luck with that, bros. P.S., Hannah is cute!
Also, the scene where she breaks down and cries and he tries to react in the kindest but realest way and she picks up on it and flips over the table of his emotions: fuuuuck.
I liked episode 6 even better.
Thoughts on the 2011-2012 television season, no categories:
After a great, weird fourth season, Mad Men’s fifth season was my favorite yet. There’s so much at stake for Don and it’s not until the finale that he truly understands it. Every character’s struggle is completely compelling and individualistic. And from a direction/editing/writing position, the show’s nearly flawless. Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Kiernan Shipka — all incredible.
Parks and Recreation remains one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, powered by a diverse, brilliant cast — each actor could launch a spin-off that might actually work. No other show on television is so warm and sympathetic toward its characters’ flaws; the humor’s never mean, outside of the case of Jerry — which is in itself a meta-joke on fat, white sitcom husbands. And he never takes it badly. The “Pawnee Rangers” episode is straight-up the best half-hour of TV comedy since Seinfeld.
Girls: Still really love this, still really think it addresses my generation in a way no other show even tries to. That doesn’t mean every character or plot point on the show has to ring true to a viewer’s life experience — that’s not how storytelling works, people! Dunham gets a lot of credit for making a hip, inviting show that isn’t quite a hipster show — and for knowing she’s not infallible.
Louie: Season 2 is brutally dark — strip out the stand-up scenes and this is not a comedy, though it’s never less than magnetic. It’s brave television, a show without a net: Louis CK doesn’t have a 3-season story arc for us, though he drops a wonderful cliffhanger in the finale. It’s not always easy, but I’ll follow wherever he leads.
Downton Abbey: Everybody agrees Season 2 was sort of bad but we loved it anyway, right? Right. Peerless production values and consistently gripping performances. Why watch television that isn’t a soap opera? There’s always real life for that.
Pretty Little Liars: Season 2 gets off to a rough start but finishes stronger than S1, weaving an increasingly dense web of mystery that manages the near-impossible feat of not turning Gossip Girl-implausible every third episode. This show is more tightly plotted than LOST, which maybe isn’t a great compliment, but the threads almost always pull together in the best possible way. The characters are predictable and paper-thin, but it’s charming paper.
Gossip Girl: In some ways, this was the show’s best season — Blair Waldorf gets married, loses her baby and goes through the strongest character arc in GG history, plus the big reveal of Chuck’s dad’s return. All squandered by the dad arc turning unbearably stupid and Blair and Dan splitting up over a few drinks and a Serena seduction after months of pursuit and slow embrace. Unbelievable, even for GG. Also: let’s be real, does anyone still care about gossip blogs, especially ones still sending text blasts? The show’s titular conceit is its biggest flaw, a upper limit on storytelling that might soar without it. Still, Leighton Meester deserves much more credit than she’ll ever get on The CW.
(This is every show I watch, by the way.)
This one got dark, huh? Not all of it worked for me — the aunt episode seemed like a golden opportunity to spend a half-hour of television sitting in a car with whiny kids, which would’ve been a little braver than, well, what happens. The family stuff was confusing: in Season 1, we spend a lot of time with his mom and brother, and then this season invented multiple new sisters and ignored the previous characters. The show likes to bend its sense of plausibility into the absurd then snap back to real-ish life — its ability to generally accomplish that is an impressive strength, but how many siblings can he have?
The two episodes covering the USO tour were a necessary break from the bleakness, and done really effectively. Most of it’s really incredible television; the final moments of the last episode are consumate Louie. But I feel like I’ve seen too much. I don’t know if there will be anything to laugh at in Season 3. At this point, I just want dude to start eating more salads and maybe try a little yoga on the weekend. I had a lot of the same feelings during this last season of Mad Men, but I got over them.
When their relationship began in Season 4, it was with the flash of young promise, free of demand, free of the strings tying Don to his old life. The first time they sleep together, Megan tells him she knows what she’s getting into — and she won’t ask anything further from him. Then they get to know each other. She’s perfect with his children, effortlessly motherly without succumbing to the exhaustion of dinner-on-the-table suburbia and dimming her sex appeal. They get married.
When Season 5 opens, Don thinks he really does have the best of everything. In the office, Megan grows into her role on the creative side, offering ideas and the charm to sell them. You can do everything, Don tells her in a cab on the way back. It turns him on.
Then she turns away, leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Price to pursue her acting career. It’s not working out. Don tries to cope, but he misses her at the office. Peggy, his right hand, leaves abruptly on the scene of the company’s greatest triumph, the acquisition of Jaguar. Worse, Megan gives up on herself and collapses into drink and despair. She wants to act in a commercial, the world she abandoned. It’s not art, he tells her. Why? But she’s desperate. Don Draper, a young man intent on building himself up from nothing, laying clean bricks on top of a stolen life, never gave up on himself.
This is the breaking point for Don, as he leaves her on the set of a “Beauty and the Best”-themed ad content with her petty happiness, walking into the darkness. Walking away from a perfect life turned increasingly sour and shrill. When she offers herself to him earlier in the episode, it’s the reverse of the angry, confident sexual being who turns him down (or starts to) almost a season earlier. The woman Don wanted, or used to. Mad Men hasn’t shown a Don/Megan love scene in quite some time, a red flag for a show that revolves around its protagonist’s penis. Now he’s like a lifeboat, detached from its ship, left to drift in an infinite, empty ocean, his bad memories packed in a canvas sack at his feet.
Season 5 was very much about the isolation of Don. Despite his new wife and his company’s growing stability, everything and everyone around him has quietly fallen apart. Beyond Megan and Peggy and even Betty’s cancer scare, he’s growing older, perhaps weaker: he battled a fever, then a toothache, which each led him to disturbing flickers of his past. He smokes and drinks; the more temperate, journal-penning swimmer of past seasons has evaporated. In a way, Don, too, has given up on himself, placing himself in the hands of others unwilling to hold him up any longer. “Are you alone?” He can answer the question now.
I’m two episodes in. I love this show: sassy, ridiculous Southern families with cranky grandmas, a dramatic decision, happy endings, lots of pretty sincere feelings. It’s great television.
P.S. I’m getting married in three months, y’all!