First Impressions takes a look at new and returning TV shows, just as they’re kicking off. We fill you in, spoiler-free.
Mad Men has always been a show about the small moments that reveal character. From the very first episode we were trained to expect the worst in these moments– infidelity, alcoholism, drug use, physical abuse, sexual harassment – all the vices possible were present and accounted for (almost all in the character of Don Draper alone, but certainly not exclusively in him). Moments of compassion and beauty were there too, but most of those were either business related (the eloquent speeches Don would give to woo a client), or were fleeting moments of pre or post-coital bliss interrupted by the immediate realization of guilt and loss.
The new ‘golden age’ of television is obsessed with heartbreaking stories about sad, sick, and desperate characters (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Wire, House of Cards, to name a few.) This is not unique to television of course; a lot of great art is based on the same stuff. There is something unique about the medium, however, and the type of leading characters involved in these series that has created a kind of numbness to their individual plight that doesn’t seem to occur from reading too many novels or seeing too many movies about similar events. Until the final episode of season six, Mad Men was no different than any of its (predictably) excellent peers and predecessors. But after watching Don reveal his brothel-dwelling past to his children, and his most recent honest moment discussing his unemployment with Sally at a local diner, Mad Men has the potential to do something quite unexpected and unique – to redeem an anti-hero in a gradual, human way (and without killing him off).
Television series’ are such a long, slow and unpredictable grind (he said, making it sound really difficult to sit on the couch and watch TV) that often shows end in a fizzle or an unsatisfactory bang. Even when they do manage to plan out the final plot points, it is extremely difficult to come to a resolution that feels worthy of five, six or ten years of buildup. Fans of The Sopranos were outraged by the sudden cut to black ending. Breaking Bad had a tidy, redeeming finale, but something about it felt so neat and unfitting the series that some critics say it devalued the series as a whole. Game of Thrones is obviously still in production and speculation about an ending is premature (hey let’s do it anyway!), but as the plot moves toward the supernatural aspects of the show (white walkers, dragons), a fittingly emotional and human seems to be moving further away.
Mad Men is unique because of the generally normal (albeit 1960’s) setting and content. It is based in a white-collar reality that feels instantly more familiar than a meth lab, the mafia, or Westeros. The drama at Sterling Cooper (Draper Price) is relatable even at its most absurd, and the opportunity for a more realistic evolution and character arc has emerged as the show has drawn to a close. Creator Matthew Weiner has said on numerous occasions that he exhausts his ideas each season and starts new again in the following year – a dangerous strategy in less capable hands, but something that has worked perfectly thus far Mad Men. The recent realization that Don can actually change even ever-so-slightly (by rejecting Neve Campbell on the plane, in his moment with Sally) despite his loveless and troubled marriage is a bold choice for a show that chose to wallow in the miserable moments of life for so long, and with great success.
It is impossible say how the show will end. Only Mr. Weiner knows and he certainly isn’t giving anything away. It could twist back on itself and Don could go on a killing spree or worse, Pete could take over the agency. For now it’s nice to enjoy his vulnerability, his humanity, and his goodness. It is a trait that has made the show even greater.