A friend of mine once observed that she’d stopped watching Mad Men because she had begun to identify too much with the characters. Whether true or not, there is something of a seductive quality to the characters on Mad Men. Not only are they beautiful people living in an enviable fashion, with peerless interior decoration, expensive tastes and absorbing jobs, they also are human in a very tantalizing way. They make mistakes, fail in marriages and other relationships, exude frustration midst their material comfort, and most of all seethe with a faint uneasiness…and look good enough doing it that I can both relate and desire to be them.
To me, that is the mark of Mad Men’s greatness, and it is exemplified best in this current season. I’ve read some mixed reviews on this season, namely in the Atlantic, and it’s tempting to see how the sixth season, thus far, could be somewhat sputtering. There’s not much forward progression, it appears, for numerous characters. Pete and Trudy separate, Don’s affair with Sylvia Rosen intensifies, but nothing too surprising or apparently momentous happens. Indeed, there are hints of professional and the ever-present personal troubles, but even the show almost seems to dismiss them offhand (the consequences of Heinz Baked Beans jumping ship, for instance, seem minuscule).
Yet this slow-burning momentum is the thing that I love best about Mad Men, and what, to my mind, renders it so seductive. After all, even though a show structured like Mad Men requires compression of time and events in order to remain compelling, it is one of the shows that most successfully captures the slow shift that comprises actual life. Few life-changing events wholly occur in a short amount of time. Rather, the tectonic grind of clashing personalities in professional and personal spheres gradually changes the landscape of daily life until sudden eruptions occur. Even the cinematography reflects that sentiment this season, with slow shots, careful framing, and sober color contrast (at least with the most conflicted characters…Peggy, for instance, wears bright colors, along with Megan; both are not nearly as conflicted as Don).
I think Todd VanDerWerff at AV Club voiced a similar sentiment, mentioning how Mad Men was great at proffering small events, almost as if they were insignificant, and yet weaving many such small moments into something far larger and important than previously assumed. Don’s marriage to Megan was one such event. I was surprised, at first, at the nuptials, but then, after rewatching much of the first four seasons of Mad Men, realized how it was not only presaged by Don’s character but also small events built up throughout the fourth season.
And that’s what I think this sixth season is, to an even greater extent than ever before. The shifts are gradual, with ostensible showy events on the surface (losing Heinz Baked Beans, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, Don’s affair) that seem to fade, but all build to something, piece by piece. What is that eventual point? I don’t know. I know what I hope for, or at least I think I hope for, and that is something Sylvia said to Don: peace.
That elusive peace is one of the most seductive elements in Mad Men. We live our lives as stories, and each of us is the hero and narrator of our tale. But we are trapped in these stories; the average of our weeks, months, and years may even out to a recognizable arc filled with joy and sorrow, satisfaction and unease, peace and discord, but in the day-to-day, peace is elusive. Mad Men exaggerates emotions by virtue of a fast-paced, highly-charged environment and profession in a colorful time period and lucrative field, but even so, it evokes the plodding evolution of longing very well.
Above, I referenced the fallible nature of Mad Men’s characters as seductive elements. The stories we live abound with our own foibles, so mirroring flaws is merely canny and candid. Yet what’s even cleverer than that is showing how those foibles come about. They all derive from that sense of unease, that longing for something, whether it be some vestige of happiness or a different satisfaction altogether (happiness would seem to be the obvious answer, but we don’t always do things because they’ll make us happy).
Whether or not you can identify with Mad Men’s characters, or even if you want to, the show does succeed in capturing that particular nature of our own lives. And, of course, delivers it to us in as attractive a packaging as possible, which may or may not be a meta-commentary on the show itself. Even if we do want to see part of our own lives played out onscreen, we want to look good, after all.
P.S. Several other reviewers have speculated this season’s theme to be something akin to Purgatory. With explicit religious overtones in Don’s affair with Sylvia, it’s an interesting take, but something that may take a few more episodes to truly develop, in my opinion.