I don’t normally write about TV series once I’ve already taken a look at them. But with the second season of Mad Men now airing on BBC4, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immerse myself in it again, having only scratched the glossy surface of season one. And besides, this is Mad Men, quite possibly the greatest TV drama series of all time.
It is easy to be seduced by the surface pleasures of Mad Men. It has so many surface pleasures to offer. It looks so ravishing and effortlessly cool. The women are all Hollywood screen sirens, and as for the men, oh my god, the suits, the suits! But this is part of the show’s success at concealing its message with such subtlety. A show that is all about the allure of surface deception should be alluring, shoulddeceive.
As you can tell, I love Mad Men. It practically makes me tumescent with storytelling lust. Each episode makes me feel like I’ve just been given a freebie from a high class hooker. It is that satisfying I find myself stretching and purring over the closing credits. I could almost take up smoking again, such is the heady buzz of post-coital langour.
But I’m not always certain as to why it does this to me. The conclusion to each Mad Men episode can be very much a What just happened? experience. You know it was something major and that everything has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is or how it happened.
This is a serious problem for some people. I know a few friends who gave up on the show because they can’t see the point; can’t see what it’s trying to say or where it’s trying to get to. I think the answer to this conundrum is to be found in the show’s unique structure and how it differs from the majority of TV dramas out there.
I’ve recently been teaching an undergraduate course on creative writing, mostly involving poetry and short stories, and it has got me thinking of the power of smallness, of subtlety, of elision. And then I chanced upon Lance Mannion‘s erudite deconstructions of Mad Men in his blog where he nails exactly what is so different about Mad Men and why its subtlety eludes so many people.
Whereas most series are trying to be novels, their dramatic arcs unfolding over episodic ‘chapters’, Mad Men operates more like a short story collection. Each episode is not a mere chapter in a larger narrative, but a self-contained story that stands on its own, whilst alluding to a larger scheme in the way that the taut stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners allude to the larger scheme of a nation in paralysis. ‘Mad Menmay be Matthew Weiner’s attempt to write Manhattanites,’ says Mannion.
And there it is. I suddenly remember the same feeling after reading each of Joyce’s stories; the something-big-just-happened-but-I’m-not-sure-what feeling. And the answers are there when you go back and look again, as you have to do with all short stories: the answers are there in a look, a gesture, a word that changes everything.
Epiphanies, not catastrophes.
Eveline’s inability to make a decision to escape, Little Chandler realising he is trapped in a loveless marriage, Gabriel Conroy sensing his own lack of passion and seeking solace in easy meditation. These are Joyce’s trademark epiphanies.
And they are there in Mad Men: in season one in that moment when Don hands the money to Hollis, or in this week’s episode when Father Gill gives Peggy the Easter egg (‘an ironic symbol of new life’) for her abandoned child and she realises this pretend person she wants to be means excommunication from her family and church. There’s a look that Joan gives in episode 8 that sums up the experiences of an entire generation of women, and a pat on the shoulder in the final episode of this season that has all the dramatic force of a beheading.
It’s the little things that count. You just have to go back and look for them, like you do with all great short stories.