Category Archives: Mad Men

Final Thoughts: Mad Men Season 1

At the outset of these reviews my stated goals were to figure out what I was missing or pinpoint what doesn’t work about this series for me.  Strangely, I think I’ve succeeded on both counts.  I always appreciated how well-crafted this series is but didn’t find that alone to be enough to make it worth watching.  Having watched it with the critical eye, that’s changed; Mad Men is a clinic in unconventional storytelling.  But that’s all it is.  I watch television to be swept up in the story but Mad Men, even at its very best, seems driven to keep the audience at arm’s length.  Much as I enjoyed analyzing this series, I can’t quite say that I enjoyed watching it. Continue reading

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The Wheel

Alright, I'll buy it

Well, here we are.  Mad Men’s season one finale has unenviable task of concluding the season arc after last week pulled the rug out from under us.  We spent nearly twelve episodes thinking that we were unraveling the threads of Don Draper’s identity when, in fact, we were watching him stitch that identity together.  The masterstroke of this swerve is in making us rethink the series up until this point; the risk is that it becomes a stopping point for the story.  That could’ve been easily addressed by making episode twelve the finale, but the creators made the bold decision to give us one more and this episode, delightfully, manages to move forward in the vein of self-construction while still integrating with the episodes that preceded it. Continue reading

Nixon vs. Kennedy

Exciting, but not really the point

“Who cares?”  Alright Weiner, ya got me.  After weeks of equivocating reviews I must finally bow down and acknowledge Mad Men’s genius.  It’s not that my complaints about the show’s emotional void were addressed, it’s that a character looked into the camera and told me they were irrelevant.  The anti-climax of “Nixon vs. Kennedy” flies so confidently in the face of narrative convention that I have little choice but to sit back and accept it.  This show simply isn’t about telling the type of story I want or expect and there’s no longer any room to do anything but sit back and appreciate its complete originality. Continue reading

Indian Summer

How blue should I go with this joke?

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. Continue reading

Long Weekend

I can think of worse ways to induce a heart attack

Well now, that was… great; not the caveat laden great that I’ve ascribed to nearly every episode of Mad Men thus far, but (finally) great on an emotional as well as technical level.  I expect great narratives to take me on some sort of emotional journey, and it’s been frustrating to see this series be so good at so many things while missing this fundamental necessity.  “Long Weekend” not only delivered the emotion, it did so in a way that actually felt like a culmination of the series up until this point.  I’m not saying that this made those first nine episodes worthwhile, but I think I get it now, and it’s so simple that I’m a little embarrassed.  I can’t connect with the characters on Mad Men because they’re all disconnected people. Continue reading

Shoot

Since when am I not hot enough to sell Coke?

One week after the heights of “The Hobo Code”, we’re back to the sterile, un-affecting, version of Mad Men.  I might even go a step further than that and say that not only does “Shoot” fail to capitalize in the good work done in “The Hobo Code,” it undermines it by letting Don find some measure of integrity in his life at Sterling Cooper.  Don, like most characters, is most interesting when he’s conflicted and giving him such a clear victory over an even slimier businessman provides a moral certitude we didn’t need.  The journey there isn’t even particularly interesting as “will he or won’t he” is never in any real doubt.  The “real” drama may be in the fact that Betty’s ambitions are also hanging in the balance but her domestic angst just isn’t resonating with me. Continue reading

The Hobo Code

I think it's finally working

What’s this, an affecting episode of Mad Men?  I wouldn’t go so far as to call “The Hobo Code” moving, but for the first time in this series I caught myself actually caring about what would happen to the characters.  That’s a pretty low bar when you get right down to it and moments like these have me thinking I’ve been a bit too forgiving of this series thus far.  Great narrative needs to command our investment, not just our admiration and this is first time that Mad Men has been able to draw me in rather than simply display some technical excellence.  Part of the problem is what an enigma Don is; it’s difficult to care about a character you don’t really know and this episode addresses that by peeling back some of Dick Whitman’s pretensions and showing us how much they weigh on him. Continue reading

Red in the Face

Who invited this guy?

It’s getting harder and harder for me to appreciate Mad Men for its technical excellence when the emotional component just keeps missing the mark.  It’s very odd for me to think of an episode as “weak” because it hinged more on character relationships than on plot development, but when you don’t care about those characters their feelings aren’t particularly compelling.  Still, the execution was its usual solid self and there was some good comedy in Don’s revenge on Roger.  Beyond that, I continue to be baffled by Pete; not remotely liking him but not being able to think of another character anything like this on television. Continue reading

Babylon

This show's supposed to be good, right?

As I recall, this was about the point in my first viewing of Mad Men that I began to get truly frustrated.  “Babylon” is significantly better than “5G” in nearly every respect, but I still found myself glancing at the clock during its latter half.  Don reconnects with Rachel for help on an ad campaign for Israeli tourism and their discussion of Utopia, the ideal and illusory place, makes a fascinating metaphor for the world of Sterling Cooper.  The introduction of Roger and Joan’s relationship and Peggy’s “promotion” to copy writer shows that Don isn’t alone in chasing things that don’t actually exist.  It’d be amazing, if only I care about the characters. Continue reading

5G

I've got some bad news

Well, it took five episodes but Mad Men finally stumbled.  Not that this was a bad episode by any stretch, it just lacked the technical excellence that’s characterized the series up to this point.  This show has done a remarkable job balancing disparate tones thus far, but making Don this disturbed by his past while still being cryptic about it doesn’t really work.  We’re too busy wondering why he’s upset to really care about his pain and his farewell to Adam just didn’t have the emotional weight it should have.  That said, a weak episode of Mad Men is still better than 90% of what else in on television, so I’m not too disappointed. Continue reading