It’s become standard practice for us to talk about the novelistic nature of series television, but this shorthand is somewhat misleading. Certainly, now that shows like The Sopranos or The Wire can be viewed in their entirety we can appreciate the long character arcs, the deliberate progress of narratives over the course of a season, and the connections from one season to another. But the “series drama as novel” trope leaves out an important factor in the appreciation of these shows: the way they age before our eyes.
A novel arrives fully formed. We sit down and read it and respond to it. Series television, however, arrives a piece at a time. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, in a recent interview with KCRW’s Kim Masters, responded to a query about season seven of his show by exclaiming, “I just finished season six!”
Indeed. Weiner is brilliant storyteller and a deft show runner, but he has to work in real time with an entire world of online commentary dedicated to picking apart his grand novel even as he is still assembling it. One can’t help but wonder about the effect of that kind of scrutiny.
These thoughts occur to me now that season six of Mad Men has concluded. I think, at its best, Weiner’s show is still the best thing on television. It’s cast is impeccable, its writing is sharp, and its set design and cinematography is gorgeous.
But I also have to admit that about halfway through this season, I started to wonder for the first time if the show was starting to groan under the weight of its own significance. The first couple seasons of Mad Men were a revelation. The next three seasons built on those revelations and expanded the show’s canvas. Admirers started talking about the show as a grand statement about America in the 1960s.
Can you hobble a show like this with too much praise? Again, it’s not a novel that arrives to us fully formed. It’s a work in progress. That means that as the years have progressed and more and more people proclaim the show a masterpiece (or “The Best Dramatic Show In The History of Television!” as AMC likes to remind us), the urgency to take on more and more cultural baggage has only increased.
The low point of the season was probably episode five “The Flood” which dealt with the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was, for all intents and purposes, the MLK episode, and it felt like the kind of “very special episode” of a much lesser show. There was something so preordained not only about the fact that the show would have to address King’s legacy (as if checking off events on a list), but in the way it would do it.
Martin Luther King is, at this point in history, as iconic an American figure as Abraham Lincoln, but, unfortunately, that is exactly the way Mad Men treated his death. Read Taylor Branch’s masterful three volume biography of King (particularly the final volume, At Canaan’s Edge ), however, and you’ll be reminded that at the time of his death King was an incredibly controversial figure who had come out against the Vietnam War and moved his Civil Rights campaign into the northern cities to address unfair housing practices—two moves that did not endear him to the nominally liberal whites who had previously supported him when he was down south taking on Dixie racism. In other words, King’s greatness today can be measured, in part, by the fact that at the time of his death he was not widely thought of as a great man (most martyrs aren’t). It’s overly tidy and simplistic for a show like Mad Men to have its characters express all the retroactively correct thoughts on the occasion of his death, and it ignores the fact that King was a warrior against the status quo (a status quo exemplified by the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce). It’s a disappointment that a show that takes places almost exclusively in a sealed vacuum of white privilege did not take the opportunity to explore the empathetic limitations of that world.
For a show that does so much right (it does, in fact, most things right) certain developments this season landed a little funny. Am I the only one who finds it weird that Sally Draper has now twice walked in on adults having illicit sex? She has to be afraid to open doors. And I don’t know what to make of Pete’s mother’s disappearance at sea—which is something that feels like the back story in a Bette Davis movie. First his father died in an airline crash, and now his mother is lost at sea. To quote Oscar Wilde, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Still, this season of Mad Men kept its bond with viewers. If Christina Hendricks’s Joan was underused (especially in the second half of the season), then Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy has only come more clearly into focus as the real heart of the show. She’s winning and warm, but no one goes from hot to cold better than Moss. The progression of Peggy’s career and love life—with the ups and downs in both spheres—supplies the positive momentum in the show. If Jon Hamm’s Don Draper seems increasingly as if he’s destined to burn out or implode or actually throw himself through his high rise window, Peggy seems more and more as if she’s destined to succeed.
But who knows? The juicy fun of a series like Mad Men is the speculation about where it’s all going, not just from week to week, but eventually, and finally. It’s part novel, sure, but it’s also part soap opera. Like most fans, I can’t wait for season seven.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.