How ‘Mad Men’ became a soap opera

What’s been interesting to me this season about AMC’s hit series Mad Men is how dead in a classically dramatic sense it seems, how spent its narrative arc. Yet it remains addictive for those who got hooked on its characters. So I watch, but I wonder about the show with morbid professional curiosity. How long and how far can a Pan American jetliner that’s lost its engines glide?

Maybe this is just me. Maybe Mad Men is doing something risky, not milking the franchise. But I affirm my sense at the end of season three: the story ended then, when the principal characters broke away from the Madison Avenue advertising agency where they toiled, loved, and fought, and formed their own firm. Any novel or regular movie with decent self-respect would have ended there, freeing our imaginations to ponder their fates. As it is, two seasons later, they now weather minor turbulence as they walk the earth like the rest of us. I dread the likelihood that the show’s writers will make lead character Don Draper unhappy again, despite his ridiculously adorable second wife and his material success. Meanwhile, viewers this season have mostly followed the supporting actors. They do supply narrative threads, but are peripheral characters, at least in terms of the initial core drama about Draper and his baggage.

The same issue faces AMC’s exciting sister series Breaking Bad. Last year, at the end of its fourth season, protagonist Walter White had finally vanquished his evil rival and won all the chips. What’s left, in next year’s final season, except to wrap up threads that don’t truly need wrapping? But Breaking Bad has at least has kept its focus on Walter, just as The Sopranos kept Tony Soprano dead center. Mad Men has drifted from Draper, maybe because it goofed and made him happy too soon.

Don Draper, with two of his vices at hand

And yet, as I say, I flail along with Mad Men, feeling my love cool and my eye grow more critical. This year the writers are emphasizing the sea-change the late 1960s wrought, as well as cultural reference points like the Speck murders. This infusion cannot staunch the leakage of the show’s drama, and fails, for me, to offset it by dishing up inescapably sentimental period allure. I grew up in the crazed, profound, damaging ‘60s and came of age in the ghastly 1970s. I was raised by a father from Draper’s martini-drinking, Camel-smoking, workaholic, womanizing milieu; my mother, like Draper’s desperate ex-wife Betty, knew a doctor the ladies could go to for “diet pills” so they could stay sexy and keep their husbands domesticated.

And so I look back when I look at the aging Mad Men, as some other boomers surely must, with curious affection and distaste. We know the period, like none since, and can inflict it upon ourselves and the credulous young: look how charmingly naïve they were, dosing themselves with nicotine and alcohol and having a promiscuous good (or bad-but-at-least-entertaining) time. We now know not only what the characters still don’t, but what we—and our parents—didn’t. We were all busy, so busy, trying to get through those years, just like everyone is now.

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12 Comments

Filed under film/photography, narrative, NOTED, sentimentality

12 responses to “How ‘Mad Men’ became a soap opera

  1. Hey, I have NEVER seen Mad Men! Can you even believe it? But I would probably completely agree with you! BTW, if you haven’t, watch Howl, with James Franco and, well, Don Draper. (That’s why I’m recommending it; it’s not completely random.) It’s a really good movie, if odd.

  2. Thanks, Leslie—I’ve just added Howl to my Netflix instant que. Jon Hamm is a GREAT actor, and I’ll probably watch whatever he does. He’s so compelling in the role of Don Draper that I might have written my post about that: how his Draper is cool but establishment and in control but broken, all at the same time. Those polarities the writers created and he embodies are catnip to me.

  3. Thanks, Richard; you are allowing me to stay “with it” without HBO.

  4. If you have streaming Netflix, you can watch through Season 4 of Mad Men.

    I love this show and I’d agree with you, Richard, the show could have and likely should have ended with Season 3. Though, my favorite episode is in Season 4, I believe, when Don and Peggy hang out in his office on Peggy’s birthday. Don gets beat up by Duck. Peggy and Don spar (as usual). Two Grade A actors in Hamm and Elizabeth Moss going at it.

    I’ll have to wait until the fall for Season 5 to be available to us, but the show is indeed gripping and Don Draper is one of the all-time great leads in television history.

    • Thanks, Brendan, those were great episodes. And I probably should have said more about Draper and Hamm’s portrayal, because you are right that he is an immortal lead. I found him so fascinating, and when his narrative arc was completed—he faced his demons, divorced his damaged and damaging wife, and apparently succeeded with a huge professional risk—I began to lose some interest. The period kitsch is great but doesn’t quite do it for me. And I dread Draper’s thread resurfacing because I love him too much for that not to be too painful, as well as dramatically superfluous.

  5. Oh Richard, yes, to all of the above. Up to now I have only been complaining to my family that the writers seem to be like Snow White, drifting. I hated the show where Draper strangles a woman in his dream and kicks her under the bed.What used to be subtle and deep is now obvious and coarse. Yuk. Plus, the show airs at 10 p.m. and takes me past my usual bedtime. I don’t like disturbing images right before sleep. It’s one reason why, except for this show (I usually pick one), I don’t watch TV at all.

    The period kitsch is fun at a superficial level, as you say. And since I am writing about the same period, I may keep watching just to see how different and alike it was to live in Manhattan and Lititz, PA, 2.5 hours away from each other by train, but worlds apart.

    I MAY keep watching. But I may lose interest altogether. And that would make me sad. I’m looking for a new show.

    • Shirley, I hated that “murder dream” show too. I am on the edge of giving up on the show; my wife is closer, much closer. And for us, too, the lateness is a factor. It ends about an hour past a reasonable time for most people who have to get up on Monday and do some sort of work.

  6. Ah, nice to hear you follow both Mad Men and Breaking Bad! I’ve actually enjoyed how things are unfolding on Mad Men — how the lens has shifted from Don (at least for now) and we see bits of conflict and seeds of change in the others, especially the women like Peggy and Joan, but also the stagnancy of some like Roger and Peter. But even with such a dark character like Don, I’ve always viewed Mad Men as belonging to all of them, not him. I’m equally (or perhaps more so?) interested in the various relationships than the characters themselves — Don and Peggy, Don and Roger, even minor connections like Joan and Lane. Though I *am* a bit nervous as to what they’ll do with Don next, but I hope that, ultimately, Megan is a woman who will challenge him.

    As for Breaking Bad, oh…don’t get me started! It’s my favorite show, in addition to Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones (watch either of those?). One more season of Breaking Bad to go, and while part of me thinks back to how LOST failed miserably in its final season (in my opinion, but that’s a whole other discussion!), I think BB will end the way it should — whatever that will be. Hard to beat the last season’s ending though, with Gus gone. But the relationship between Walt and Jesse, for me, seems to be the core, and that story isn’t over yet.

    • Cheri, I watched some of Boardwalk but didn’t stick with it, and have not seen Game of Thrones. In Breaking Bad, I predict Walt’s dogged brother in law, the disabled cop, is going to come back in the picture, pursuing Walt unknowingly.

  7. Couldn’t agree more. Mad Men started out as something special, got somewhere special, and is now blundering forward like a soap opera with a fan base, and no new ideas. The show is using more and more “filler” material. The writers keep making mistakes in the language used in the 60’s and ignoring P.T. Barnum’s dictate, “If you have a message, call Western Union.”

    • Thanks for commenting, Astro Gremlin—and interesting timing. I am on a trip and insisted on watching the show last night with travelers who are not watchers, and thoroughly humiliated myself. When you see it through others’ eyes, it’s even worse. Laughable. I hate myself enough for keeping up with the show, however much I tell myself it’s out of professional interest, and then the show’s soap opera nature hits you in the face like a wet fish. Don Draper is more a cipher now than an enigma—he’s not very interesting; I have lost sympathy and connection with his plight; he does not palpably suffer from his baggage but does inflict suffering all around . . .