Just one episode after Mad Men finally found some emotional weight, it returns to the cold detachment that’s characterized its other 90%. To be fair, one can’t expect a show to deliver that much intensity every week; efforts to have the payoff without the buildup can only yield train wrecks (like True Blood), but I really thought my new way of looking at this series would yield some more investment in what’s going on. Sadly, Mad Men, it’s not me, it’s you. Stories involving emotionally detached characters are only really interesting when they’re about emotional detachment. Roger’s health, Don’s career, Pete’s ambitions, the Drapers’ marriage… none of these things make good fodder for a narrative when I’m not invested in the characters.
If I can take an apropos, if obvious, dig at this show, I’ll accuse it of masturbation; the witty dialogue, stellar acting, living setting, and clever imagery amount to nothing more than self-indulgence when not paired with a compelling narrative. I’ll even admit there’s a sort of brilliance to this as Mad Men’s all about self-indulgence but, even if this is true, it doesn’t address the problem. The only way to enjoy this series to admire its artistry. It’s the Finnegan’s Wake of television, full of endless fruit for analysis, but with nothing else to pull you in. As a critic, one would think I’d enjoy this, but it’s feeling more and more like a “great” book you need to read for English class; there’s plenty to talk about and nothing to care about.
Half-way through this write up and I haven’t really mentioned anything about the episode. To laud the artistry I’ve just harpooned, “Indian Summer” does an excellent job exploring things that don’t belong. Roger ought not to be at Sterling Cooper and the effort to slip back into his old life only yields another heart attack. Peggy’s date reveals that she’s just as out of step with “her folk” as she is with Madison Avenue. Pete… well, Pete just keeps on not fitting in anywhere. Finally, there’s Don, who tells Rachel that he’s right where he’s supposed to be. If this is true (it isn’t), then it’s telling that Don spends the other 99% of the episode away from Rachel. If it isn’t true (it isn’t), then Don doesn’t even have one oasis of truth in the lie he lives.
I’m back to waiting out the clock on Mad Men and my utter lack of enthusiasm is entirely due to it proving how great it can be last week. I tried reminding myself throughout the episode how full of shit these characters are and while that helped, it’s not enough to save the episode. I’m a big advocate of the active audience, but it’s still the narrative that should do the heavy lifting. Oh well, only two more episodes to go.
Point in case for how badly Mad Men misses the emotional mark: Adam’s suicide is just something that happens. We know next to nothing about this character and so his death, in itself, has little meaning. Even as it relates to Don, the suicide feels inconsequential. Were we supposed to feel some sort of dread when Pete takes that box?
“You were the finest piece of ass I ever had, and I don’t care who knows it.” Okay, that line was utterly awesome.