Joan or Peggy? The show has weighed in, apparently, on the side of those who want to see Joan succeed and Peggy laid low. Similarly, they’ve weighed in on the side of those who complained that Walter White wasn’t humiliated enough, or that his humiliation only made him seem sympathetic. Don, for no reason, is sitting on the balcony in his bathrobe, shivering and crying, ugly and pathetic. (But no near frontal nudity as there was in the opening sequence with Roger.)
I’ve often felt a little let down by the storytelling on the show. The scenes too often exist not to show you something happening, but to signal what happened between this show and the last one. No, Ken’s eye didn’t heal. No, that tap-dancing episode wasn’t a one-time thing: he hasn’t calmed down. Yes, Joan still has Avon, and has impressed Ken enough that he gives her more responsibility. Yes, Megan moved to California alone. No, Don hasn’t split with her, and hasn’t told her that he lost his job. No, Peggy isn’t getting along with the new boss. No, Don isn’t in AA, and Lou Avery isn’t his sponsor, and Freddie isn’t his sponsor either and doesn’t even seem to know that he has a drinking problem (although I don’t remember whether Don actually opened a bottle in Freddie’s presence). No, they didn’t have cell phones in the sixties, and Ken has to wait until Monday to find out what happened Friday. Yes, Stan is still pissed at Ted for ruining his own chance to move to LA (I actually had a manager once who did this to a guy in my group, he quit shortly after).
There’s still all the things that aren’t said: that Ken chose Joan because, as a woman, she’s unthreatening; that Lou is only saying to Peggy what everybody in the office always thought; that her brother-in-law doesn’t like to leave his wife alone in Queens but fell asleep in Peggy’s apartment in a much worse neighborhood with the door wide open; that Freddie is getting all indignant and defensive on behalf of copy he didn’t even write. That by moving to Los Angeles, the mad men are mixing with a different kind of New Yorker than they’d known back at home. Mad Men will never be explicit about any of these things.
And it will never be explicit about what led to these relationships. We don’t get to see the specific interactions between Peggy and Lou that led them to this place. We don’t get to see how he treats her male colleagues, and we don’t see the moment in the beginning of their working relationship where, maybe, she messed up, bad. We don’t get to see how Joan learned to be such a good businesswoman, or how she got the idea to do after hours research with business school professors. We don’t see what Megan’s really doing with her time.
The effect is entertaining but, for a show that’s so much talked about, it’s also frustrating. Mad Men isn’t novelistic in the way a lot of the best of the recent “quality television” has been. If Mad Men is fiction, it’s a minimalist short story of the 1980s, showing the viewer a bare selection of disconnected plot points. In minimalism, if I recall correctly, the narrative style was meant to evoke the lack of meaning in the lives of its characters, who were often from working-class backgrounds (although the stories’ milieu suggested the blander reaches of the bourgeoisie), in the world of capitalism. There was never any commentary within the text, but readers knew what it all meant. It’s the same—in a way—with Mad Men. But in this case, the novelty of this kind of narrative style in this kind of television series creates an off-kilter effect. When the show is good, that effect makes it better. And most of the time it’s good. But occasionally the seams show through. And when that happens is actually, I think, when Mad Men most becomes Art. It’s hard to talk about, though.