The Mad Men Can’t Quite Get Hold Of Me

A year or so ago, I wrote my first brief response to AMC’s Mad Men. Three episodes in, I described it as ‘grim’ and a ‘serious downer’. Now, five seasons in, I’m still inclined to that description. (The fact that it has  taken me this long to come close to exhausting Netflix’s online repository of its episodes should indicate I haven’t indulged in any kind of binge viewing and have been happy enough to suspend watching the show for a variety of reasons–like watching other television series and movies.)

I do not mean to be reductive in my take on Mad Men. I find its writing enjoyable and like many other viewers find Roger Sterling‘s lines particularly memorable (indeed, I often find myself wishing he was given more screen time); I appreciate its careful attention to its ‘look and feel’ – its sumptuous interiors and clothes most notably; I am cognizant the show attempts to highlight the misogyny, gender discrimination and racism of days gone by. This is a very slick and smart show in many ways.

But for all that, it simply isn’t compelling enough. I do not know if there is a story in there somewhere or whether I am merely paying witness to an episodic dysfunction of family, society and business. Perhaps I have made matters worse by watching it in the distracted fashion I have employed, but this consideration seems to involve a rather insuperable chicken-and-egg question: Was I distracted because Mad Men didn’t grab me, or was I not grabbed because I was distracted?

Perhaps it’s because I find Don Draper utterly vapid and uninteresting. I do not know if Draper is supposed to cut a tragic figure or whether my reaction is the appropriate one to have to a man of Madison Avenue. Perhaps the writers of the show have succeeded in making me realize the shallowness of the advertising executive.

Perhaps the show’s attempts to serve as a chronicle of the times don’t always work; I’m not sure why, but its references to, and attempts to integrate, ‘the world outside’ –as in its incorporation of the JFK assassination, the civil rights struggle, the death of Marilyn Monroe–sometimes feel forced.

But in the end, I think the reason I don’t find Mad Men as compelling as many others do remains the same as I articulated in my original post: I find advertising and its business and supposed creativity not very interesting at all. (It doesn’t help I consider mass advertising to have had a ruinous effect on political discourse in the US.) I am not intrigued by the processes that bring ad copy and art to life; I do not imagine those who work in advertising’s creative departments to be inspirational geniuses; (I am intrigued to hear so many of the shows fans say they find Draper’s pitches ‘clever’); I find talk of ‘account servicing’ tedious. These prejudices, I suspect, get in the way of my being able to enjoy the show fully.

Still, the show exerts a peculiar fascination on me; I intend to watch it in its entirety and will write on it again. This post, and my first one, have been rather superficial takes; perhaps my summation will be rather more synoptic and thoughtful.

Breaking Badder Than I Thought

Almost exactly a year ago, I speculated about how Breaking Bad would wrap up.

I wondered about Walter White‘s eventual fate:

[P]erhaps the writers will give Walter a glorious back-to-the-wall-defending-his-family-shootout kind of death, saving  them from the depredations of a ruthless set of ganglords, thus redeeming himself in spectacular fashion even as he loses his life….Hank will finally catch up with Walter, his Heisenbergean nemesis, a man who has nearly caused his death, and caused him plenty of misery.

I seemed to be on the mark here. In a fashion. But there were other speculations that I got wrong:

[W]hen Hank catches up with Walter, it will be too late; Walter will be dying, and Hank will let him go, cognizant of the price to be paid by the family if Walter’s cover is blown. Most centrally, Hank will keep Walter’s identity secret so that Junior does not come to know his father was a demented meth cook….As for Jesse, Walter will apologize for having induced such a catastrophic trajectory to Jesse’s life, but I do not know if he will ever spill the beans about his role in Jesse’s girlfriend’s death….These redemptions add up to a happy ending of sorts: there will be a funeral and tears will be shed, but Walter will have provided for his (extended) family, eased the uncertain torments of Hank, and maintained his image in the eyes of his befuddled son.

As the series heads for its finale next week, it’s pretty clear there will be few happy endings. Indeed, the only outcome that could count as such would be Jesse liberated from his horrific servitude. Every thing else would be very weak balm on a large sucking wound. Walter White is at the bottom of a deep pit; it’s going to take some desperate scrambling up its slimy sides to get ‘out.’

Not that there’s much waiting up top:  his money seems destined to go waste; wiping out a gang of feral killers seems unlikely. As does reconciliation with his family, the unkindest cut of all. And of course, a painful death from lung cancer awaits in any case.

Vince Gilligan had indicated that Breaking Bad would ‘not end well,’ and if the current trajectory of the show is any indication, that seems very  plausible. Still, I have been surprised by the bleakness of these last few episodes and wonder how much of the feel-good wrap-up style I had relied on in my earlier speculations will be on display in its conclusion next week. Walter donning his Heisenberg hat and the flash-forward earlier in the season which showed him with a gun suggest that at least some dramatic, blood-soaked resolutions lie ahead, and the wrinkle introduced by the mention of Gray Matter Technologies is certainly an interesting one.

If Gilligan remains uncompromising and brings the White nightmare to an end in as unsparing fashion as he has shown recently, then Breaking Bad will have performed a very useful service: it will make conventional endings look almost unsustainably trite.   It has already set new standards for bleakness–Jesse Pinkman‘s recapture and Andrea‘s execution were merely the latest flourishes.

I’ll be sad to see the show end, but I wouldn’t mind a little relief either.

The Mad Men Are Serious Downers

I’m only three episodes deep into Mad Men, and I’m already struck by how grim the show is. There’s misogyny, sexism, racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual prudery (of a kind), depressing suburban life, loveless marriages, loveless affairs, rigid gender roles, corporate language, the vapidity of advertising, and smoking indoors. And alcohol, lots of it. Mainly martinis and scotch, consumed at all hours of the day, in offices and homes, and during kids’ birthday parties. (I’m not sure if I’ve missed out on anything; I’m sure fans will correct me if I have.)

In using ‘grim’ as a description for the show–which I intend to keep watching for the time being just because it is morbidly fascinating–I do not mean to look past the stylish dressing, the carefully designed interiors, the loving caresses of the whisky and martini glasses, the nostalgia for a time when boys could be boys, white folk could be white folk, and women knew just how to be women, that apparently captivate so many of the show’s fans. Rather, I find that adjective appropriate because despite the apparent cheeriness and cleverness of the office banter, the endless drinking and dining in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, and the freedom to drink in one’s office, no one in the show seems to have had the most minuscule ration of any kind of happiness doled out to them. This is one serious downer of a show.

This should not be entirely surprising. Advertising consumer products requires the careful manufacture and sale of a fantasy, one underwritten by a corporate imperative. What Mad Men does quite well, whether deliberately or not, is to depict participation in that fantasy-mongering as an ultimately soulless, dispiriting enterprise. After all, if you’re shoveling it all day and all night, wouldn’t you find your life a serious drag? Once this is realized, the near-constant drinking suddenly becomes much more understandable; who wouldn’t need a few stiff ones to navigate through the lives these folks lead? Pour me a large one, please.

The dispiriting effect of Madison Avenue is not restricted to the office and the boardroom; it spreads out into homes and suburbs too.  As an advertising account executive, if you spend one-third of your life talking in platitudes, and spinning yards and yards of not particularly clever mumbo-jumbo, there is a good chance you’ll bring home that contagious emptiness with you and let it infect everyone and anyone around you. Resuming drinking at home seems like a good way to deal with these domestic blues.

The show’s writing is clever in parts, and the pretty displays of archaic behaviors and attitudes are certainly generative of the morbid fascination I mentioned above. For the time being, I will plough on, hoping that the Mad Folk don’t harsh my mellow too severely in the weeks to come.

Note: I read Daniel Mendelsohn‘s memorable review of Mad Men a while ago, long before I had seen a single episode of the show. I intend to reread it once I’m a couple of seasons deep.

Breaking Bad: This Generation’s Western

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is done and dusted. (Yes, I am a Netflix-viewer of television series, and so, invariably lag behind; in this case, a full season.) I’ve not written on this blog before about Breaking Bad, and given my admiration for the show, find myself surprised by this omission. So here goes nothing.

Like many viewers of the show, I have been struck by the remarkable descent of Walter White into the depths of moral depravity, the steady darkening of his character, his pathological tendencies, and concomitantly, the painful decline of the young Jesse Pinkman, his former student, and now, his seemingly doomed partner in crime. (And like most viewers of the show, I’m reminded of the grim toll the war on drugs continues to exact.) A great deal has been written on these themes: Walter has truly been the single worst thing that could have happened to Jesse; life as a petty meth-dealer was infinitely preferable to the high-stakes, even if well-paid, hellish ride Walter has taken Jesse on; beatings and death threats have been the least of it. (My wife and I cheered Jesse on as he handed out a thrashing to Walter in season 4; never have I been happier to see a lead character take a beating.)

Rather than repeat some of those commentaries, I want to quickly make note of another player in this saga of  murderous desperation and deceit: the classically Southwestern landscapes of New Mexico. (The often grim urban setting of Albuquerque is undoubtedly a key participant too, but those are less novel given the context of the show.)

From the first episode onward, when Walter and Jessie head out to the desert to cook their first batch, the Southwestern high deserts and plateaus are ever-present players. The harsh glare of the baking sunlight, the parched landscape it shines on, beautiful and deadly, are suitably incongruous partners to the business our chemical artists are engaged in, bringing together the elegant precision of Walter’s chemical formulas and cooking techniques with the deadliness of a ‘product’  sent out to be sold by homicidal paranoiacs and consumed by derelicts with rotting teeth, wasting bodies and addled brains. Walter’s mobile meth lab seemingly desecrates this landscape, but it has seen plenty of violence in the past too. This desert plateau is the setting for mass executions, violent interceptions of meth shipments, pow-wows with Mexican cartels,  the disposal of corpses, and edgy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-catastrophe encounters; its light always brightly illuminates the darkest deeds imaginable.

In utilizing the Southwestern landscapes as he does in Breaking Bad, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has added another dimension to the wildness of the Wild, Wild West, and provided us a new kind of Western, one suitable for this day and age. Here, there are no heroes, merely villains and victims of one stripe or the other. When the smoke will have cleared at the end of the fifth and final season, and guns holstered and put away, it seems highly implausible the good guys will walk out of the saloon – for the simple reason there were never any to begin with.