One of the things that makes Mad Men so consistently watchable is that it defies soap opera conventions. We’ve come to expect certain things from TV shows. We expect these people to live crazy, over-the-top lives full of great tragedies and great good fortune (but mostly, great tragedies). We expect miscarriages, drowned children, car wrecks, true madness, terrible accidents.
Instead, what Mad Men gives us is tangible, relatable, believable, every day tragedy. J. and I watched the season finale last night, and while Don was out philandering with yet another woman – leaving his children alone in a hotel room – J. said that he expected one of the kids would have disappeared, or the baby would have died or… something, while Don was out getting it on. This would *surely* be Don’s wakeup call about all the philandering… No way, I said. This isn’t a soap opera, and that’s one of those convenient character-spurring-moments that doesn’t happen in this show.
Sure enough, we pan to the lamp and get on with the show with everybody still intact.
In fact, the one truly outrageous accident I could think of in the show was when account exec Ben Cosgrove runs over the foot of the new head of operations with a John Deere mower last season. And one of the reasons it was so outrageously believable is because nothing like that happens on this show. But, just like real life, weird and wacky does occasionally happen. Just not, you know, every damn week of your life (OK, so, there was the weird California thing where Don runs off with that crazy family of free-love rich folks for three weeks, but I’ve blotted most of that out).
They also take great pains to ensure that we see lots of time passing between and during episodes. It’s not like there’s some wacky hijinks going on at the agency every week or some tumultuous thing in their homelives getting upset every week for the benefit of TV audiences. We just get the highlights. In fact, a great deal of the actual action in this show happens offscreen. What we see are significant slice-of-life character moments. We get The Milkshake Scene, and Betty-giving-Don-the-keys scene, and Peggy wearing the client’s product to a client meeting scene, and etc. This makes the show clip along very quickly, and lets us judge our protagonists during low, high, and simple everyday moments.
Everytime somebody gets pregnant on this show, I still expect The Tragic Miscarriage or the Botched Abortion, but it never happens. Instead, they get to make tough choices and deal with tough consequences – just like real life. Most women don’t get “saved” from having to make a decision by a convenient miscarriage. And, let’s face it – well off women like Joan don’t generally go to bad doctors, even during the era of illegal abortion (illegal things, as we all know, only apply to poor people, no matter what time period you’re in. The rich have always been able to do pretty much what they want).
In fact, the only absolutely wild thing about this show is just how many women Don Draper sleeps with. Thing is, as a successful ad executive in the 60’s, this is probably one of the more believable things about this show. It’s just hard to believe anybody would have that much mental space to manage their affairs. That said, unlike, say, Nip Tuck (talk about a soap opera!), all of the women he’s gone to bed with are distinctive characters, not plot coupons. They have sex with him for their own reasons, and figuring those out and seeing how they gel with his (or not) is one of the best parts of the show. There’s something I’ve liked about nearly every love interest, even the prostitute. Because, again, they’re well-rounded, well-acted characters. Not just “Don’s love interest this week.”
This is a show that I’m drawn to not simply because it’s set in an ad agency, but because it deals starkly with relationships between people. How people justify being horrible to other people. How they use (or are used by) others. The decisions we make when it comes to job vs. family. Gender relations in the workplace. Power negotiations.
The best part is that it’s not bad guys vs. good guys, either. All through last night’s episodes, I kept saying, “Don is such a dog! Ack, he’s such a dog!” and then Betty shows up and I’m like, “Ack! She’s such a little kid! Such a selfish little kid!” The beauty of this type of show is that not liking one character doesn’t mean you have to like the other. Just because Betty married a dog who cheated on her doesn’t make her the victim. Not in the least. She negotiates her own life. Makes her own choices. And some of them are nearly as dog-like as Don’s. I don’t sit around boo-hooing that she’s some kind of victim. Nobody is good or bad. They’re just people. And they are doing their best with what they’ve got, in the situations they’re in (except Don, who is a dog!).
In fact, what I love about watching Don is watching his moral compass at work. He simply does things without thinking of anybody else. He’s truly the most selfish character in the show (which says something considering it’s a show that includes Pete Campbell), but he believes that everything he’s doing is absolutely right. He does whatever it takes to get what he wants, and not even his family is sacred. It’s whoever you need to crawl over to get to the top… and yet, he keeps up this illusion that he’s a good husband, father, and family man. The people in his life are there to be used. No more, no less. And when he is done, he simply dumps them. And hands them some money or something. Desperately hoping they will go away.
The supposed irony of this last episode is that Don re-marries before Peggy. But then, Peggy doesn’t have a male secretary, so she’s at a distinct disadvantage. The best scene, by far, in the finale was the one between Peggy and Joan as they commiserate over their crazy office life and Don’s puffed-up pride at his latest engagement. “Here, ladies, you do all the work, and we’ll keep drinking and fucking our secretaries, ho-ho.”
And yet, just like the characters themselves, the gender relations at the office are not bad guy/good guy. They simply are. Peggy fights for her raise. Joan just says “thank you” when she receives a title but no raise. They come from different schools of how to get ahead in life, and they have far different tool boxes. Watching them negotiate power for themselves inside and outside of the office on par with the mechanics of guys’ personal lives is what kept me watching this show in the first place.
Because, as noted, Don Draper is a dog.
And, you know, that’s another thing. I’ve been hoping Joan would dump her ridiculous fiance-and-then-husband forever. The show had one of the most believable rape scenes I’ve ever seen – non-consensual, not-brute-forced sex – between Joan and her fiance (again, sticking to that “Here’s how most things happen to people. Not here’s how we imagine things happen to people” idea), and ever since then, I kept hoping she’d dump his ass. But, you know what? Life keeps going. How many people have had non-consensual sex with their significant others? Their relationship keeps going. They have bad times. They have good times. But nobody’s all bad. Nothing’s all bad.
I love that this show explores why and how people stay together, even if they are sometimes terrible to each other. We love our black-and-white society. We love “Well, he hit you, so leave” or “He cheated on you, so leave.” Or “They didn’t give you a raise, so leave.” Finally, there’s something I can actually watch on TV that doesn’t say, “Someone did X, so they are they Bad Guy.” It says “We’re all bad guys. We’re all good guys. It’s just a matter of how much good and how much bad at this particular time.”
I don’t know where this show is going, or how long it will stick around, but as long as the writing and acting stays at this caliber (more milkshake scenes, less California threesomes), I’m certainly going to stick around for the ride.