‘Mad Men’ countdown: It achieved high drama without all the dead bodies
According to the critics of our day, we are living in another Golden Age of Television. I don’t disagree, but I would ask that the observation be amended ever so slightly. We are indeed living in a Golden Age, one that proudly stands in its full glory barely above the stacked dead bodies of TV characters.
This self-anointed era has been an exceedingly tough time for our shared fictional human families. Decapitations (“Game of Thrones”), ritualistic cult murders (“True Detective”), sliced throats (“Breaking Bad”), bodies blown to bits (“Homeland”), bodies chewed into bits “(The Walking Dead”) and, most distressing of all, journalists thrown into oncoming trains with abandon and delight (thank you “House of Cards”).
Enjoy your precious prestige dramas now, you bloodthirsty rabble!
In fact, all these shows, in no small part because of their skillful if overzealous use of lethal violence, are fantastic TV series. They are bloody and murderous, but that is hardly what the shows are about. They are really about people at their worst, or in the worst of circumstances, struggling to be their best.
But there’s no denying that murder and random death have become rocket fuel for heightening the narrative suspense of our best TV shows.
That is a kind of fuel, however, that “Mad Men,” which begins airing its final seven episodes April 5, doesn’t regularly put in its tank. And that is something, considering its long sustained dramatic momentum, at which we should marvel.
In the carefully orchestrated world of “Mad Men” created by showrunner Matthew Weiner, there’s a reason death, or the palpable threat of it, aren’t driving forces of the series. In a 2012 interview with The Times, he said: “I don’t like to use death as entertainment. It’s exploitative. I grew up watching network TV and during sweeps they would always kill a kid or kill his parents and by the time I was old enough to realize what that was I found it unpleasant.”
For most of the prestige dramas, death is handled like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s bombs that his audience knows is under the table. We feel in practically any scene of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” or “Boardwalk Empire,” someone could be killed at any moment. Of course, that doesn’t happen, but the audience feels the possibility is there, ticking away, ready to explode into reality. It’s in the DNA of those shows.
In “Mad Men,” the bomb almost always is in your head. You have to pay attention and think. (On behalf of all attentive, thinking “Mad Men” fans, I’d like to accept this statue of self-congratulations.)
Why is Don knocking back drinks and raw oysters with Roger and then racing up 23 flights of stairs to meet with clients? Why is Don driving Sally to this old rundown house?
So when people would complain “Nothing really happens in ‘Mad Men,’” I would answer you aren’t paying attention or you’re not thinking. (Once in a while, I’d add, you’re stupid.)
It’s not like there isn’t violence and death in “Mad Men” either. But when there is, it often is played as dark humor and is not meant to stoke suspense.
Peggy accidentally spears her boyfriend Abe. Ken gets his eye shot out hunting with clients. A secretary riding a John Deere mower at an office party nearly shears the foot off of a glad-handing British ad executive, who sadly, will never play golf again. Even poor Lane’s first suicide attempt was a joke -- he planned to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, but his Jaguar wouldn’t start.
The passing of Miss Blankenship was a brilliant silent -- and comic -- movie, while the passing of Bert Cooper, who went out dancing and singing, was as beautiful a moment as the show has ever produced. If there’s any sinister killers stalking the show’s characters, it’s atherosclerosis and lung cancer.
Metaphorically though, the show can be as quietly savage to its characters as any on TV. Sexism, racism and class conflict burn externally, while self-doubt, self-delusion and self-loathing sear internally. Can the endless figurative fall of the silhouetted man in the opening credits be broken? Can he change in a meaningful way for the better? The laws of nature and TV would seem to be against him. But we have seven more episodes, so we’ll have to live with the tension until then.
Show Tracker is taking a daily look at all things “Mad Men” as the groundbreaking show begins airing its final seven episodes April 5.
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