It’s a challenge for producers of long-form television to maintain our attention between seasons. I am, after all, part of a generation known for its lack of an attention span. LOST lost me during the writer’s strike of 2007-2008 and Downton Abbey between Seasons 1 and 2. And I actually liked both shows…a lot. Combine that with incredibly high expectations – distance makes the heart grow fonder – and Matthew Weiner had his work cut out for him.
After a year and a half away, my hopes for Mad Men’s fifth season were high, but my fear of being disappointed and disengaged were even more salient. A few episodes in, and my fear proved to be well-founded. The show signaled a new era – through color, outfits, and furniture – leaving me a bit nostalgic for previous seasons. An even more jarring adjustment had to do with pace. I had forgotten that Mad Men is a show where so very little seems to happen from episode to episode. I often struggle recounting to friends what actually did take place as the show’s narrative lies more in the micro (the everyday) than the macro.
But then, just as I settled into the speed, I was radically disrupted. Consider the powerful last few episodes of this most recent season: Joan (Christina Hendricks) makes a professional decision built around her sexuality, disjointing our understanding of her character’s motivations. Personally, Joan’s decision was just as jarring in how it highlighted my own hypocrisy in not reacting similarly to Don’s (Jon Hamm) previous escapades. (Why was it okay for Don? Why was I more disappointed with Joan?) As Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Megan pushed with resistance for increased amounts of autonomy from Don (their boss and husband, respectively), I found myself resonating and sympathizing with their quest. And who could forget Lane’s (Jared Harris) response to Don’s professional reprimand, an action which nearly shook the audience as much as it did Draper.
What is most chilling about this series, however, is that all of these actions happen without manufactured drama. Music doesn’t sensationally punctuate the background, and while characters seem surprised by all that happens, they also bounce back relatively quickly to the everyday. Things happen. Things stay the same.
And the brillance of Mad Men is that in these emotional freeze-frames, the micro-stories convey a certain cosmic significance. Mad Men does not have to address the 1960s by writing a treatise on the sexual revolution. Rather, we feel both it’s positive and negative effects through the everyday trajectories of Peggy, Joan, Betty, and Megan. It is not through a long-winded soliloquy on aging that we understand what it means to grow old. Rather, this comes by seeing how Don changes from season to season, and takes hold on us specifically by our resonance or disgust along the way.
In the end, Mad Men’s power lies in this deliberative slowness, silence, and character stability in the midst of all that is changing. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceasely into the past.” Fitzergerald’s haunting melody never fails to eventually lull me back in, season after season.