Mad Men has always been superb at picking out its themes and weaving them delicately into each episode. The best moments of the entire series are those sequences where everything comes together just right. From the carousel in season one to the night that made Joan partner in season five, Matthew Weiner’s gift of subtly linking ideas and subtext has been one of the show’s main draws.
However, as the seasons go on and the episodes add up, it’s inevitable that the seams will start to show. The template will be made visible. The themes will become characters of their own, complete with predictable interactions.
As I’m saying this, I realize it sounds a lot like a criticism. Not necessarily. Like Community‘s most recent episode revealed, some shows have trouble developing after a creative plateau, but other artists have used the plateau as nothing more than a springboard.
The Sopranos rejuvenated itself after a notoriously sleepy fourth season by delivering one of the most intellectually stimulating, brilliantly produced seasons in all of television (with the help of Matthew Weiner, by the way). This wasn’t because the talent was holding back, but because the audience wasn’t sure of what it wanted.
The world’s idea of Sopranos fans is very different from its actual fans. The show is philosophical, haunting, tragic, funny, and near-Shakespearean in its depiction of greed, justice, humanity, and rage. And after its first four years of successfully skirting the line between Goodfellas and My Dinner With Andre, Goodfellas was starting to edge out as the dominate style.
Lots of people got whacked. Lots of affairs were had.
A funny thing happened. People got less interested in the show. It took the experimental, surrealist fifth season to boost the ratings back up. It took My Dinner With Andre to make Goodfellas go down easier.
The same thing seems to be happening to Mad Men. After the first three seasons of the show, audiences were getting savvy to the templete and themes, so Weiner pulled everything out of the diorama and started fresh with a new agency, a single Don, and a bag full of new problems to solve. And it’s worked for the last two seasons in reinvigorating the formula.
But things are starting to sag. The puzzle is fitting together too well. Ever since Lane’s suicide, which significantly raised the stakes of the show, Mad Men has had a hard time getting back its balance. It’s transitioning formulas, but Weiner appears to be confused as to which direction he’s wanting to head.
Are we going to move into the surreal psychoanalysis of his best work on The Sopranos? Maybe. Sterling’s acid trip and the fun use of non-linear storytelling were the highlights of the last season, but very little of that playful experimentation has shown up in the first four hours of the sixth season. We’ve instead been going in the direction of themes.
“To Have and to Hold” is a clever title for an episode completely focused on ownership, trust, and loyalty. Stan is working on a top-secret project away from his creative team. Peggy is going behind Stan’s back with a Heinz campaign of her own. Megan’s supporting role in a daytime soap opera calls for her first love scene, something Don can’t wrap his mind around (even though he’s been having an extremely loose affair with his neighbor), putting a strain on their marriage.
Taken out of context, the title of this episode reads, appropriately enough, a lot like an advertisement for a product. A singular object.
It’s every man for himself this season, and each subplot so far has really driven that point home. From Peggy’s isolation in her new position to Megan’s insistence that her career deserves as much sacrifice as Don’s, every character is working desperately to find happiness alone, no matter the consequences.
I just wish there were more people like Dawn, Don’s African-American assistant who is struggling to maintain her optimism in the face of her nihilistic workplace, or like Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), who prays for Don to find peace for no other reason than to help him. But it seems the late-sixties mentality of “what about me?” has poisoned the already-narcissistic employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.
Mad Men may be letting the seams show a little more than in its heyday, but Weiner’s late-series renaissance of The Sopranos gives me hope that he’ll find his footing again before too long.
How great is it that Joan got more screen time in this episode? I’ve missed her. We’ve all missed her.
“I think Don’s a man who plays many roles.” –Little too on-the-nose, right?
Peggy’s ad was totally better.
Ken Cosgrove’s character arc is one of the best things happening right now. I’m very interested to see where it’s leading.
Harry Crane’s character arc came out of nowhere tonight, but it was satisfying to watch Joan silently win that battle over the totally oblivious Crane.
Hearing RFK’s presidential campaign in the background reminded me that he’ll probably be assassinated during this season. Hopefully there aren’t any more weddings planned.