Nothing and Everything – Reflections on the Unsynopsizable Beauty of Mad Men

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In four days Season 6 of AMC’s Mad Men will be released on Netflix Instant. Fifteen days after that, Season 7 will begin airing. My wife and I have just consumed the show’s first 5 seasons at a relentless, insatiable clip over the past three months, so we decided to use the opportunity to take a short break, rather than buying each episode on Amazon. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? A noble plan, but not a night has gone by that one of us hasn’t broached the subject of buying the first episode – just the season premiere, that’s all. Just to see what the new status quo is. Come on? Please? I’m begging you, just one hit? Then we’ll stop.

Except I don’t know that we would. I certainly don’t have anything revolutionary to say about why Mad Men is good that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I’ll leave it to the amazing folks recapping each episode over at Vulture to parse out the connections to historical ad man Draper Daniels, the meaning of each song choice, and accuracy of each period reference. But the intense withdrawals from the series have led me to think about it a lot during this interval, and in particular the things that make this show more addictive than a toasted Lucky Strike cigarette.

The first thing is that the show, from a purely technical perspective, exists as an aesthetically perfect artifact: the gorgeous and talented cast, the killer costuming, the lush colors of the cinematography, the nimble but water-tight writing. It’s a flawless little pocket universe where surprisingly big ideas, like race, women’s lib, family, and identity, can be discussed at length and at a clinical remove within the context of 1960’s advertising. The show runs on subtle mechanics, cycling through retro ad campaigns and deftly intertwining them with the personal lives of these ad men and the frequent moments of social change the 60s offered. The tension comes from Don Draper having to give a pitch that we know is in direct contradiction to what’s going on with him emotionally, like his pitch to Jaguar in Season 5. The campaign he presents to the Jaguar executives revolves around the idea of totally owning an object of beauty; an upsetting bit of language considering he knows that one of the female staffers at the agency essentially had to be prostituted out to get the Jaguar account. Advertisements can have a misleading appearance of simplicity. Simple things with a straightforward message: BUY THIS.

But because the actual creative business of advertising is not so simple, Mad Men gets to dabble in broad moral abstraction and nihilism. By way of example, here is an early exchange of dialogue from Season 1 that I have never recovered from:

DON: I can’t decide if you have everything or nothing.

MIDGE (his bohemian mistress): I live in the moment. Nothing is everything.

Nothing and everything – not having and having – are key concepts in Mad Men, reverberating at different frequencies through Pete Campbell’s transparent and petty jealousies, Peggy Olson’s career ambitions, Joan Harris’ fraught marriage, and of course Don’s issues of fidelity and identity. Lest we forget, as advertising people, they are literally in the business of making nothing into everything. And we are frequently shown that one character’s nothing – a neglected marriage, a nonchalant side job as a sci-fi author – could be another character’s everything, making the concepts essentially interchangeable. Okay, so either nobody ever has anything or everybody always has it all – if one person can’t tell the difference from another, what does it even matter? This is dire hopelessness that warbles quietly beneath the groovy 60’s soundtrack and inane chatter about clients and artwork. There is an existential darkness at the heart of Mad Men, a kind of fundamental void that sucks in any hope, any marital vows, and any liquor in the characters’ immediate proximity.

And it is in this bleak absence that I find the essential brilliance of Mad Men. In the same way that you can never directly detect a black hole but only its effects, it is difficult to zero in on what exactly gives the show its nigh-gravitational significance. It epitomizes a literary concept that was first expressed about poetry by Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn but has since been appropriated for pop culture by my friend Geoff Klock. Brooks called it “the heresy of paraphrase” and the core idea is that form ultimately trumps content, meaning that if you can paraphrase a line of poetry to the same effect then it is a bad line. Klock has made a name for himself in part by repurposing stuffy literary and poetry theory and using it in considerations of fun stuff like movies and comics. His version of this was that if reading a synopsis of a movie gives you the same experience as actually seeing it, then the movie probably wasn’t actually worth seeing.

For instance, no one is arguing that Duncan Jones’ movie Source Code is any great work of art, but to help clarify Klock’s point, let’s see how it holds up to this test: In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal must go back in time and relive the same 8 minutes over and over again until he finds a bomb on a train. I am leaving out plot spoilers and maybe even being a little mean, but basically everything that is entertaining about Source Code is contained in that statement. I actually had fun watching Source Code, but I admit it never transcended the clockwork of its high concept in the way that, say, Groundhog Day transcends its own very similar premise. Mind you, I am not saying that every movie or TV series has to rise above its logline, just that we can often make important distinctions based on what does and what doesn’t.

Mad Men is emphatically not synopsizable. It defies synopsis. To say that it is an ensemble workplace drama about an ad agency does not do it justice. To say that it is a period drama about the 1960s does not do it justice. To say that it is a domestic drama about infidelity does not do it justice. It is all of these things but also none of them; it is a show with intricately crafted details, but a nebulous overall shape. This is hilariously apparent in the short synopses for each episode on Netflix. For instance, here is the ridiculously uninformative Netflix blurb for the Season 5 episode “Dark Shadows”:

Don becomes competitive while Sally faces a challenge; Roger seeks new business.

The pleasures of this episode, and really any episode of Mad Men, are too intricate and deep to be summed up in a meager handful of words. What makes the Netflix blurbs (perhaps sourced from the DVDs?) so funny is that they clearly realize this and so do not even try.

On the details – my wife pointed out early on that Joan wears her work outfits more than once. It’s a spectacular bit of realism in a show that is so much about costuming. Most TV characters are extensively (and expensively) costumed – could you imagine Jennifer Aniston wearing the same outfit twice on Friends? It’s a double win for the producers of Mad Men, who get to save a buck and reinforce the fact that Joan is a real woman who dresses herself on a budget. Another great small detail comes at the end of Season 3 – hands down the best finale of the series – when a small group of characters are ransacking the office. They have been instructed to grab only the documents and materials that will be most crucial to starting of their own agency. Don sets the box from his office down on the cart and it’s clear from the sound that there’s nothing but liquor bottles in there.

Drinking at the workplace is not generally sanctioned these days, but then Mad Men always has a lot of fun wallowing in dramatic irony, allowing us to chuckle at the characters at our smug remove of 50 years. For instance, in the first season Don’s daughter Sally has dumped out a large plastic bag of dry cleaning and is running around with the bag on her head. Her mother, Betty, snaps at her, not because she’s playing in a dangerous way that could lead to hear suffocation, but because she has dumped out all the dry cleaning. Jokes about how much values, companies, and society have changed since Mad Men are so frequent and gratuitous that they constitute a kind of “period porn.” Oh no! The agency didn’t get to represent Honda’s motorcycle, only their fledgling auto business! What a bummer!

Mad Men’s premise is flexible, leaving room for considerable differences in tone and style. By the end of Season 5 two characters have died in the office of the ad agency: the first is played for broad comedy with co-workers attempting to sneak the body out of the office under a blanket without disturbing an important meeting. The second, a gruesome suicide, is depicted with austere frankness, so the grotesque particulars can fully overwhelm the characters and the viewer. Somehow both of these scenes work within the overall context of Mad Men, whatever the hell that magnificent overall context might be.

UPDATE: Over the course of writing this my wife and I lost our resolve – we bought and have since watched the Season Six premiere.Now that we at least know what everybody’s up to (OMFG Linda Cardellini!) maybe we can make it through the rest of the week. Though Matt Zoler Seitz did have something to apropos say in his deft recap of the episode for Vulture:

What’s the story here? I mean, in the Aristotelian sense? I don’t think there has ever been a “story” on Mad Men – at least not the sort of neat, on-point story we’re accustomed to seeing on a TV drama, either over the course of a season or within an episode… [Executive Producer Matthew Weiner and company] are more interested in what you could call the non-story-ness of life – how existence is filled with the devices of fiction, yet they never congeal in a satisfying way; most of our epiphanies are false or self-justifying ones, except for the handful that turn out to be true and meaningful, and that we muster the strength and perseverance to act on and make permanent.

So what I’m hearing is a whole lot of nothing and a little bit of everything? Does that about sum it up?

Thankfully, no.

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