Reaching Critical Mass Of Mad Men

July 20, 2010

So here we go again. In less than a week Mad Men season four begins and in anticipation of the premiere the show has been on my mind. My girlfriend and I (who, I should note, met because of Mad Men and thus hold it in a special place in our hearts) have been watching old episodes and through each of them I’ve found myself wondering how much longer the show can continue while being as good as it’s been. The brilliance of Mad Men, in my opinion, lies in the finite amount of stories that can be told about Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, and the rest. The core story of the show is about emptiness despite everything that should make us excited and happy: a successful career, a beautiful family, respect, allure —all those things that an advertisement implies will come if you buy the product. But there are only so many stories you can tell with the same characters, even in the 1960s. The point eventually gets dull.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The best movies, books, and television shows stop after a while. The Sopranos comes to mind as a show that ended when it needed to. The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, didn’t and so episodes I, II, and III exist. If Mad Men is going to be regarded as one of the great t.v. shows, it’s going to have to end before the stories become stale. The question then is when is a good time to end? Mad Men‘s creator, Matthew Weiner, doesn’t think that time is near (warning, spoilers):

Fortunately the series’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has found a way to finesse “Mad Men” fatigue at the end of the third season by giving his story a mulligan.

Sterling Cooper is starting over, as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and so is Don. When the series began in 2007, its main characters were established, slightly jaded players in a field that was on top of its game in a nation still puffed up with postwar confidence and superpower brio. The advertising firm was so successful, despite its disreputable office parties, that it was practically white shoe. And its creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), married to lovely Betty (January Jones) with two lovely children in a lovely suburb, had little to prove, except, perhaps his effortless prowess as an extramarital ladies’ man.

But when Sterling Cooper’s British parent company was sold at the end of last season to an even bigger advertising behemoth, Don and his colleagues broke away and lost their complacency.

Suddenly they became small and scrappy without the huge accounts, vast office space and bottomless expenses of yesteryear. And that final episode, as Don banded his loyalists together to start a new firm, was the most exhilarating moment of the season.

Now, at the beginning of Season 4, which begins next Sunday, it’s a year later, and the executives of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce go on cattle calls to woo clients. Contracts melt away. The business is precarious and copywriters stoop to publicity stunts to gin up business.

His personal life is just as altered. Betty is freshly embarked on a new marriage with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), an older man and an aide to Nelson Rockefeller. Henry, who has grown children from a previous marriage, promises Betty a better life — though this one comes with a scornful mother-in-law.

And Don, who had women falling over themselves trying to get him into bed when he was married, finds himself alone in a dark Greenwich Village apartment, shining his own shoes and going out on blind dates. Being a bachelor back in those days, before the pill was widely used by single women and the arrival of “The Sensuous Woman,” did not automatically include swinging. Don tries to kiss a young woman in the back of a cab but can’t get any further. She won’t let him accompany her to the door to the Barbizon, then a women-only hotel, because, as she puts it coyly, “I know that trick.”

I’ll give it to Weiners, I think the fresh start sounds good. It sounds like the new situations in season four will make the already complex characters more complex. But there’s no sign that the show is going to end anytime soon or that there’s an overarching storyline. That’s worrisome to me.

Then again, there really hasn’t been an opportunity to end the show except at the end of season one and open-ended finales in the first season are pretty common with t.v. No, there’s going to be a point when Mad Men will have to end. Not yet, but soon enough.

—Daniel

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