The Return of Mad Men and the Complicated Business of Who Rules TV

The long awaited return has finally come.

Back in 1999, HBO began running a show (set in my neck of the woods) called The Sopranos.  It was violent and artfully made, featuring unparalleled writing for television and an eye for grand serial storytelling.  So began the rise of the greatest era television has ever known.

The medium of television had long been Ringo to cinema’s John Lennon but that was because the storytelling potential of the medium was widely untapped. Sure, continuing storylines existed in shows but outside of David Lynch’s supremely weird Twin Peaks and Larry David’s neurotic masterpiece, Seinfeld (itself very formulaic), television was more about familiarity, condensed weekly stories and bars where everyone knows your name.  There have undoubtedly been extremely entertaining shows since television’s inception (The Twilight Zone being timeless and brilliant) but the medium tended not to stray into the region of art.  The film industry had grown to the point where huge commercial blockbusters, tiny art house films, and that beautiful space in between all exist at the same time while television was mostly content with laugh tracks and shark jumping.  But David Chase’s The Sopranos radically altered the landscape of television for the better leading into a 13 year stretch that brought us the greatest comedy of all time (Arrested Development), the greatest basic network drama of all time (Lost), the greatest police/crime show— and maybe just the best, period —of all time (The Wire), short lived network gems (Firefly, Jericho, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared) and so much more.  HBO’s success with Tony Soprano lead to a boom of paid cable network genius (Deadwood, the sadly declining Dexter, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire to name a few) and that success dovetailed off into smaller cable networks branching out into the novelistic, quality narrative department with both FX and AMC dropping some serious talent into primetime drama (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead for AMC and Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story for FX).  Beyond that television’s comedy is in a great place right now for network and cable.  Even with low NBC rating woes TV is currently sporting Parks and Recreation, Community, 30 Rock , Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, The Venture Brothers, East Bound and Down and more.  So where is all this name dropping and ranting coming from you ask?  On Sunday night one of television’s, arguably, greatest shows ever returned after an extremely prolonged absence.  That’s right, Don Draper is back along with all the racism, misogyny, alcoholism, nicotine and great suits that we’ve come to expect from the 1960s.  After a year and a half away, Mad Men has returned.

Mad Men is the creation of Matthew Weiner and he is the embodiment of the long list of television I just described.  This stretch of television excellence (which ironically went hand in hand with TV’s descent into reality television) was marked by creative auteurs carrying their vision onto television rather than simply featuring wannabe film makers settling. The likes of Milch, Chase, Weiner, Gilligan, Fey, Scorsese, Darabont, Lindelof and Cuse, Harmon, Simon, etc. powered television into the high quality future where intelligent television occupies the role in society that literature once did. That is, reading is still wonderful but the stories we all talk about involve Walt facing off with Gus and how annoying the Jack and Kate plot line is rather than bemoaning the fate of Oliver Twist (or the contemporary equivalent).  Weiner’s Mad Men is now an established veteran of upper echelon TV and is entering its fifth season with a premiere that was as excellent as ever.  It saw a drastically different Don Draper smile and enjoy his way through a new marriage and suddenly boring job.  This cleverly plays with the question Don always raised.  How much of this man is a construct of Dick Whitman (Don’s real identity) and how much are we seeing someone who actually exists?  We’re now forced, again, to reevaluate one of TV’s most enigmatic forces.

Weiner (along with a staggering performance from Jon Hamm) has built a character who really does keep us at a distance while letting us in all at once.  Take Roger Sterling and the state of his marriage.  He, like Don, married way under his age range on an impulse and, as we expected, is once again miserable with a woman he has no desire to connect with.  Roger is a known, and entertaining, quantity and, while he’s not a simple man, we certainly could see this turn of events coming.  But going into the season there was an equal chance that Don would A.) Already be divorced and/or miserable B.) Be incredibly happy but still philandering and working too much C.) Wandering around California with pseudo-hippies…again.  Don’s journey is one fueled by a self-made identity crisis and we now get a glimpse at who Dick Whitman might really be.  But Dick Whitman died in the war along with any remnants of his life so we’re left with witnessing the fascinating and inevitable clash that will occur when the life of Don Draper meets the priorities of Dick Whitman.  Hanging over all of this is the business in which our characters work; a world where their job is to manufacture identities for manufactured products that are being sold as one thing while existing as another.  That ham-fisted explanation may sound on the nose but it is at the soul of Mad Men.

Though a comparison may not be called for I found myself drawn to comparing Mad Men with its network roommate and competitor for best show on television, Breaking Bad.  While there is no guaranteed metric for these things I think it’s safe to say that critically speaking these shows are the two most revered and the two with the quality to be relevant for a long time.  They may not pull in CBS ratings but they are the ones talked about at water coolers and in snooty cafes.  Breaking Bad’s protagonist, Walter White has his own twisted journey of self-construction yet the show is rooted in a drastically different world with fundamentally different aims so the futility of comparison is outweighed by how damn interesting it all is (and let’s be honest, you stuck with me this long so let’s just run with it).

AMC’s other flagship critical darling provides an interesting counterpoint to “Mad Men.”

One of the trademarks of this high quality television is an outright rejection of the status quo.  Whereas sitcoms and procedural cop shows rely on characters staying in certain roles and certain places, the high quality narrative show never lets you feel comfortable or safe.  In many cases that can mean the death of key characters at any time (Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones are good recent examples) and in the cases of AMC’s two artistic juggernauts it means a constant evolution of circumstance and character.  Breaking Bad starts with a teacher receiving a cancer diagnosis and moves to RV meth cooking in the desert, to pizza getting thrown on a roof during a domestic dispute, to the Mexican border, to seedy motels, and to high tech meth labs without ever missing a beat. Mad Men lets characters divorce, quit, and die rather than milking plot lines for longer than needed.  It also goes without saying that we’ve watched all the characters grow and change in organic, unexpected way.

Still the shows have major contrasting elements.  Breaking Bad, which is my favorite of the two, is predicated on action (though it’s not an “action” show) and writing the characters into literal and metaphorical corners so we can watch the consequences of the actions they must take to escape those corners.  It has a certain “holy fucking shit I need to see next week’s episode this instant” effect because Breaking Bad’s subtle embracing of magical realism elevates key moments to divine cinematic heights that a more naturally realistic show can’t match.  Mad Men is a more reserved beast since, by nature, the world of advertising is one of lower stakes than the southwest meth trade. It features more contemplative questions about the nature of work, manhood, womanhood, the effects of time and place on character and the roles we choose (and don’t choose) to play in our everyday lives.  We can relate to the humanity of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman but we can relate to the actions of Don and company.  They are a more 1:1 reflection of our best and worst qualities.  Both are brilliant and both are playing off divergent elements and ideas.

It’s back in a nicotine haze of complicated glory.

At the center of these two worlds are Walter White, cancer ridden chemistry teacher turned meth cook extraordinaire, and Don Draper, identity thieving ad executive/enigma.  Both men consciously decided to construct new identities for themselves for very different reasons.  Don is running from a life he doesn’t want while Walter is facing off with his fate by pushing back.  On the brink of death Walt realizes that your life comes down to choices and that the difference between those choices can be negligible if you get what you want.  He, in essence, chooses to be a bad person by deciding to reject the very definition of good and bad.  If Walt can’t control being alive or dead he sure as hell can try to control everything else.  Don on the other hand is actively playing the role of emotionally closed off, workaholic, womanizing asshole in order to fit into the world he has entered.  Don realizes, like Walt, that identity is a choice but he is seeking to be a chameleon and that hiding in plain sight leads to a constant fear.  That fear manifests itself into the form of a man unwilling to give an inch and it also leads to a man who, instead of feeling like who he claims to be, doesn’t really feel like anybody at all. That’s what makes the new Don so interesting as we move forward in the new season.  The question isn’t if people can change; it’s does Don knows who he really is inside? The question is, does it matter?