Most of the show’s flaws can, in fact, be attributed to the way it waves certain flags in your face and leaves things at that, without serious thought about dramatic appropriateness or textured characterization. (The writers don’t really want you to think about what Betty might be thinking; they just want you to know that she’s one of those clueless 1960s mothers who smoked during pregnancy.) The writers like to trigger “issue”-related subplots by parachuting some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before. Although much has been made of the show’s treatment of race, the “treatment” is usually little more than a lazy allusion—race never really makes anything happen in the show. There’s a brief subplot at one point about one of the young associates, Paul Kinsey, a Princeton graduate who turns out—how or why, we never learn—to be living with a black supermarket checkout girl in Montclair, New Jersey. A few colleagues express surprise when they meet her at a party, we briefly see the couple heading to a protest march inMississippi, and that’s pretty much it—we never hear from or about her again.
Even more bizarrely, Lane Pryce, the buttoned-up British partner who’s been foisted on Sterling Cooper by its newly acquired parent company in London—you know he’s English because he wears waistcoats all the time and uses polysyllabic words a lot—is given a black Playboy bunny girlfriend whom he says he wants to marry, but she’s never explained and, apart from triggering a weird, vaguely sadomasochistic confrontation between Lane and his bigot father (who beats him with a cane and makes him say “Sir”), the affair leaves no trace. It’s just there, and we’re supposed to “get” what her presence is about, the way we’re supposed to “get” an advertisement in a magazine. The writing in Mad Men is, indeed, very much like the writing you find in ads—too many scenes feel like they have captions.
But then, why not have captions when so many scenes feel like cartoon panels? The show’s directorial style is static, airless. Scenes tend to be boxed: actors will be arranged within a frame—sitting in a car, at a desk, on a bed—and then they recite their lines, and that’s that. Characters seldom enter (or leave) the frame while already engaged in some activity, already talking about something—a useful technique (much used in shows like the old Law & Order) which strongly gives the textured sense of the characters’ reality, that they exist outside of the script.
The acting itself is remarkably vacant, for the most part—none more so than the performance of Jon Hamm as Don. There is a long tradition of American actors who excel at suggesting the unconventional and sometimes unpleasant currents coursing beneath their appealing all-American looks: James Stewart was one, Matt Damon is another now. By contrast, you sometimes have the impression that Hamm was hired because he looks like the guy in the old Arrow Shirt ads: a foursquare, square-jawed fellow whose tormented interior we are constantly told about but never really feel. With rare exceptions (notably Robert Morse in an amusing cameo as the eccentric Japanophile partner Bert Cooper), the actors in this show are “acting the atmosphere,” as directors like to say: they’re playing “Sixties people,” rather than inhabiting this or that character, making him or her specific. A lot of Mad Men is like that.
The way that the scene about Lane and his black girlfriend somehow morphs into a scene about an unnatural emotional current between him and his father is typical of another common vice in Mad Men: you often feel that the writers are so pleased with this or that notion that they’ve forgotten the point they’re trying to make. During its first few seasons the show featured a closeted gay character—Sal Romano, the firm’s art director (he also wears vests). At the beginning of the show I thought there was going to be some story line that shed some interesting light on the repressive sexual mores of the time, but apart from a few semicomic suggestions that Sal’s wife is frustrated and that he’s attracted to one of his younger colleagues—and a moment when Don catches him making out with a bellhop when they’re both on a business trip, a revelation that, weirdly, had no repercussions—the little story line that Sal is finally given isn’t really about the closet at all. In the end, he is fired after rebuffing the advances of the firm’s most important client, a tobacco heir who consequently insists to the partners that Sal be fired. (Naturally he gives them a phony reason.) The partners, caving in to their big client, do as he says. But that’s not a story about gayness in the 1960s, about the closet; it’s a story about caving in to power, a story about business ethics.
To my mind, there are only two instances in which the writers of Mad Men have dramatized, rather than simply advertised, their chosen themes. One is about the curvy office manager Joan, who at one point is asked to help vet television scripts for potential conflicts of interest with clients’ ads, and finds she’s both good at it and intellectually stimulated by it—only to be told, in passing, that the firm has hired a man to do the job. The look on her face when she gets the news—first crushed, then resigned, because after all this is how it goes—is one of the moments of real poignancy in the show. It tells us far more about prefeminist America than all the dirty jokes and gropings the writers have inflicted on us thus far.
And there’s a marvelous sequence that comes at the climax of Season 4, in which Don’s secret past creates a real dramatic crisis in the Aristotelian sense: what Don has done, and what he does, and what he is and wants as opposed to what his society is and wants, all come together in a way that feels both inevitable and wrenching. At the beginning of the episode, we learn that Sterling Cooper’s biggest client—that tobacco company whose billings essentially keep it running—is about to drop the account; as a result, the agency is in serious danger. Then—luckily, as it would seem—a young executive seems on the verge of bringing in a huge account from North American Aviation, a defense contractor based in California. But the routine Defense Department background check that is mandated for companies doing business with NAA poses a threat to Don, who as we know was a deserter from the army.
This situation creates a conflict with an elegantly Sophoclean geometry: the survival of Don’s business depends on doing business with NAA, but doing business with NAA threatens Don himself—his personal survival. In the end, Don’s sometime rival—a younger colleague who discovered his secret long ago, but has kept it, sometimes grudgingly, and whom Don has bailed out at a crucial moment, too—covers for him, dumping NAA on some pretext.) As I watched this gripping episode I realized it was the only time that I had felt drawn into the drama as drama—that the writers had created a situation whose structure, rather than its accoutrements or “message,” was irresistible.
In its glossy, semaphoric style, its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue, the way it uses a certain visual allure to blind rather than to enlighten, Mad Men is much like a successful advertisement itself. And yet as we know, the best ads tap into deep currents of emotion. As much as I disliked the show, I did find myself persisting. Why?
In the final episode of Season 1, there’s a terrific scene in which Don Draper is pitching a campaign for Kodak’s circular slide projector, which he has dubbed the “carousel”—a word, as he rightly intuits, that powerfully evokes childhood pleasures and, if you’re lucky, idyllic memories of family togetherness. To make his point, he’s stocked the projector he uses in the pitch with photos of his own family—which, as we know, is actually in the process of falling apart, due to his serial adulteries. But even as we know this, we can’t help submitting to the allure of the projected image of the strong, handsome man and his smiling and beautiful wife—the ideal, perhaps, that we all secretly carry of our own parents, whatever their lives and marriages may have been.
The tension between the luminous ideal and the unhappy reality is, of course, what the show thinks it’s “about”—reminding us, as it so often and so unsubtly does, that, like advertising itself, the decade it depicts was often hypocritical, indulging certain “images” and styles of behavior while knowing them to be false, even unjust. But this shallow aperçu can’t explain the profound emotionalism of the scene. In a lengthy New York Times article about Mad Men that appeared as the show—by then already a phenomenon—was going into its second season, its creator, Matthew Weiner, recalled that he had shown the carousel episode to his own parents, and the story he tells about that occasion suggests where the emotion may originate.
Weiner, it turns out—like his character, Don Draper—used his own family photographs to “stock” the scene: the most poignant image we see as Don clicks through the carousel of photos, a picture of Don and Betty smilingly sharing a hot dog (a casual intimacy that, we know, can now only be a memory), was based on an actual photograph of Weiner’s parents sharing a hot dog on their first date. Interestingly, Weiner made a point of telling the reporter who was interviewing him that when he showed the episode to his parents, they didn’t even remark on the borrowing—didn’t seem to make the connection.
The attentive and attention-hungry child, the heedless grownup: this pairing, I would argue, is a crucial one in Mad Men. The child’s-eye perspective is, in fact, one of the strongest and most original elements of the series as a whole. Children in Mad Men—not least, Don and Betty’s daughter, Sally—often have interesting and unexpected things to say. Perhaps the most interesting of the children is Glen, the odd little boy who lives down the street from the Drapers, whose mother is a divorcée shunned, at first, by the other couples on the block. Glen has a kind of fetishistic attachment to Betty—at one point, when she’s babysitting him, he asks for and receives a lock of her hair—and he occasionally pops up and has weirdly adult conversations with her. (“I’m so sad,” the housewife finds herself telling the nine-year-old as she sits in her station wagon in a supermarket parking lot. “I wish I were older,” he pointedly replies.) The loaded way in which Glen often simply stares at Betty and the other grownups suggested to me that he’s a kind of stand-in for Weiner, who had been a writer on The Sopranos and, more to the point, was born in 1965—and is, therefore, of an age with the children depicted on the show. That Glen is played by Weiner’s son strikingly hints at the very strong identification going on here.