TOWARD THE END OF “Tomorrowland,” the final episode of the fourth season of AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper (the girl-, booze-, and epiphany-hound played to the nines by Jon Hamm) gazes with rapt wonder into the eyes of his newest lover. Something of a cut-to-the-chase lothario until this point, Draper’s googly candor is a bit surprising as he lays his heart on the bedsheet. “Did you ever think,” he says, “of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you? But everything happened, and it got me here. What does that mean?” Hamm utters these lines in the kind of tremulous whisper-shout normally reserved for stoners commenting on double rainbows. But it’s not just love that has Draper so high, or at least not only love. Don Draper, in this scene, is amazed by the sheer happenstance complexity of the events leading up to this new relationship. In the context of Draper’s life, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings of fate. In the context of Mad Men, however, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings, and plottings, of serial television.
Mad Men, in addition to being an abundantly detailed, almost classically composed piece of historical fiction and a genuinely ambivalent critique of consumer culture, is also an intriguing meditation on narrative itself. This is not to say that Mad Men is the best show on the air, or that this self-consciousness somehow allows it to transcend its peers. The self-consciousness of a show like FX’s Louie, for instance, is far more daring and revelatory, and Mad Men is by no means a consensus pick for the Great American Television Series. Indeed, over the past few years, Mad Men has been bloodied by a number of high-profile hatchet jobs — notably at the hands of Daniel Mendelssohn in the New York Review of Books and Mark Greif in the London Review of Books, both of whom raise fair points concerning the show’s often uncritical exuberance about its own aesthetic. Not to mention the fact that Mad Men suffers from the unfortunately common ailment that its protagonist can only ever claim to be the fourth or fifth most interesting character on his own show. Don Draper can run off to California to join a proto-hippie sex commune all he wants, but I cannot conceive of a viewer who would not rather spend the time of these elaborate set-pieces with the sultry and sad accordion-playing Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) or even Draper’s own deeply troubled daughter, Sally (played by the mesmerizing child actress Kiernan Shipka).
It is not necessarily a value judgment, then, to say that narrative is, very simply, what Mad Men is about. From the nostalgic yarns Draper and his fellow ad men (and token lady) spin in order to sell cigarettes to the elaborate lies they concoct to maintain their lifestyles, the characters on Mad Men devote more attention to the stories they tell about their lives than they do to the lives they actually lead. On the surface, this makes Mad Men an examination of a group of people whose collective narcissism has transformed them into a kind of self-sustaining utopian community of cheating spouses and the secretaries with whom they cheat. It also makes it a show with a lot to say about the difference betw...read more