I went on a Mad Men binge this weekend. I watched seven episodes in three days.
Then after Denis tipped me off about Maureen Ryan’s interview with Matthew Weiner, I started googling around and binged on Matthew Weiner interviews ( , here, and on NPR) . (I’m still looking for an interview in which he talks about Peggy’s pregnancy, if anyone finds one let me know please.)
Did you know that Weiner wrote the Mad Men pilot seven years ago before he got his Sopranos gig? In fact it was that spec that got him the Sopranos job? There seems to be this implication in the Mad Men promo that he learned his technique on The Sopranos, but evidently he had it before.
We knew from the moment that the pilot aired that Weiner was doing something different than we’d seen before. Those characters just refused to behave like tv characters: what do you mean Don has a wife? why the hell would Peggy let Pete into her apartment?
I suspect that a lot of us are going to be adding a Mad Men spec to the repetoire. Or at least letting the Weiner-style influence our next spec pilot. Your best friend in such an endeavour will be the Mad Menwhich is a sequence by sequence break down of each show (are they trying to put me out of a job!?).
Now that I’ve seen a whole season and lapped up Weiner’s every word, I’m in a bit better position to dissect his story telling style.
The episodic stories are unveiled in a series of sequences; groups of scenes that tell little stories. Together these sequences take you some place unexpected and yet inevitable. Each sequence is it’s own entertaining little story, filled with character revelations and detail that may or may not feed into the larger picture of the episode. There were somewhere between 14 and 19 of these sequences in the episodes I dissected with the help of the episode guide.
The sequences do not drive the story forward as they do in so many other series. Instead, they come at the story sideways, like a bank shot in a game of pool. The story beats aren’t as obvious as they usually are, but they do connect up with the larger story.
Like the Simpsons and the Sopranos, the opening moments of a Mad Men episode don’t telegraph the ending. We start one place, end up some place very different.
In, the main story is about Don and Rachel sleeping together for the first time. We start at Don’s home with Betty getting ready to go away for the long weekend with her father and his new girlfriend. “Was she waiting at the funeral unbuttoning her top button?” Betty asks.
How does this sequence play into a story about Don finally taking up with Rachel? What is its connection to the larger story? This is Don’s reality, his starting point in the story. He’s built himself the perfect suburban family with two kids and the blonde goddess wife. Only he can’t connect to her in any meaningful way.
Also, the scene sets up the stakes. For Betty, her father taking up with a new woman is akin to infidelity. Her mother is dead. What will she feel if she finds out her husband is cheating on her? How can Don take up with a new woman — no matter what he feels about her — when his wife is so fragile?
In the next sequence, Don arrives at the office to join in a discussion about the Nixon campaign for the presidency. Don says he can related to Nixon because he’s self-made. This is a little foreshadowing, we’re going to learn about Don’s past. We already know that he erased his origins and made himself up.
If beat one was “where Don is now” and beat two is “where did Don start” (which remains a question) then beat three is “where is Don headed” or “what is his dream”, maybe. And the answer is Rachel Menken, so the next sequence involves selling Rachel’s father on the new plan for Menken’s Department Store. In this sequence, Don sells Abraham on their ideas by describing Menken’s customers as being like Rachel herself, “they are fully aware of what they deserve and are willing to pay for it.” But maybe Don is talking about himself. He deserves Rachel, is he willing to pay the price?
The next couple of sequences feature Joan. In the first, she rejects Roger’s invitation to spend the long weekend with him and in the second her roommate shows up to tell Joan she’s been fired for covering for her boss. While these sequences are part of Joan’s storyline they resonate thematically with Don’s. We see the price that the unmarried woman pays for her romance with a married man. Roger wants to believe his relationship with Joan is meaningful — just as Don wants meaning from a relationship with Rachel. But what does Joan (or any other woman) get out of it? As Joan says to her roommate Carol, “Dinner and jewelry? Who cares?”
The sixth sequence involves the news that Don lost the Dr Scholl’s account. “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them,” Don tells Pete, but when Pete is gone, he knocks everything off his desk in a rage. This is the first sign of how tightly wound Don is.
It is also an examples of how the beats come at you sideways in Mad Men. Don’s life isn’t working for him. His wife is unstable and though he loves her, he has no passion with her. He loves a woman who is unattainable. His past is coming back to haunt. He recently discovered that the woman he’s been sleeping with is in love with someone else. But what makes him crack is losing the Dr Scholl’s account.
Next up is a little beat between Peggy and Pete. It’s unusual for the show because these two are actually talking about what’s going on between them; “every time I walk by I wonder,” Peggy says, “Are you going to be nice to me? Or cruel?” The scene definitely speaks to theme, although it has nothing to do with propelling Don forward in story terms. But it builds the sense of ominousness, reminds you what is at stake when men and women collide. And it’s juxtaposed with that scene of the office buys hitting on all those twins without a thought to consequence.
Back to the Joan story, for a couple of beats. Carol reveals that she’s gay and in love with Joan. Joan completely ignores this and proceeds as if the words were never spoken. She and Carol go out, pick up a pair of losers who’s only redeeming quality is that they are bachelors and sleep with them. Even Carol sleeps with hers, because she too is capable of ignoring her reality.
(Apply this to Peggy’s truth. Now you know how she could have ignored her pregnancy until the moment of the baby’s birth. It certainly has happened in real life. There are many incidents of woman claiming to be utterly surprised when a baby popped out of them. Weiner built a reality where this was possible. He warned you where he was going with scenes like this one. People are truly capable of ignoring very big and loud truths. In real life and the world of this series.)
Meanwhile at Sterling Cooper, Don and Roger are hooked up with the twins. This is one of those signature Mad Men sequences that goes on for way longer than you expect. Like the stair climbing sequence in Episode 7 “Red in the Face” and that endless party in Episode 12 “Nixon vs Kennedy”, the twins scene just goes and goes and goes some more. The lengths of these vignettes is way outside the tv norm which gives them a kind of claustrophobia. It’s like life, you can’t cut away when things get uncomfortable.
Through the sequence, Don remains steadfastly uninvolved. His tie remains firmly tied and he refuses to even flirt with his twin. Yet he is involved by virtue of being there. He isn’t appalled by the sexual exploitation of these women like we are, but he is appalled by what’s going on and his complicity in the meaninglessness of the world he inhabits. He doesn’t like Roger for the way Roger is acting, but like Roger he very much wants to be with women who are not his wife. Roger’s heart attack is just the icing on the cake that is motivating.
The hospital makes up the next sequence. Roger will survive in the reassuring embrace of his wife and daughter. But when he phones her, Betty doesn’t meet Don’s emotional needs.
Now we dip back into Joan’s story. Cooper calls her to the office to help deal with the emergency resulting from Roger’s heart attack. Joan — the other woman — has no right to express emotion over Roger’s condition. She has to hold it back. This sets up some powerful stakes for Rachel. We know what she’s in for if she crosses the line.
And finally, Don stumbles into Rachel’s apartment. He doesn’t seem to have a plan in coming here. Everything that has happened to him in the story thus far has driven him here. Yes, they were bank shots, but nonetheless the events have logically moved him to this place. He needs comfort. He doesn’t want to consider consequences.
But Rachel does, “is this like the end of the world? Just do whatever you want?” We understand her point of view as well as we do his although this is only her second scene in the episosde and she barely had any lines before now. But all those bank shots from the Joan storyline have informed her well.
We both dread and want this for Don. We like him and we want to see his emotional needs met. On the other hand, the episode has clearly shown us the consequences. So the stakes in this scene are huge. There is tremendous tension and no one had to spell it out for us. All of it came at us sideways but we get it all the same.
The coda on the piece is when Don reveals some small truths about his past. He is trying to communicate with Rachel in a way that is very different from the way in which the other men and women in the show have communicated.
One last thing I want to mention is the difference in pov between the viewer and the characters. We see the world from a very different perspective than they do. Our attitudes about blacks, women, gays and Jews hold us apart from the characters. When we watch the twin scene we can’t help but be appalled at the exploitation of these women. We are shocked that Joan can completely ignore Carol’s revelation that she’s gay.
This creates a tension between us and the characters. We feel we can’t quite ever know them because their values are so different from ours. And then, we do know them, we recognize their feelings, goals, humanity. It’s a tension to be aware of and use in scene construction.
The more often you watch these episodes, the more you understand them and the more entertainment you get from them. Next season’s a long way off, but there’s enough in these 13 episodes to keep me going for a while.