TV Club

How characters change on Mad Men.

In Mad Men, the characters upset the writers’ carefully laid plans.

Dear John and Julia:

What a treat to get to join you two for another season of Monday-morning quarterbacking Matt Weiner & Co. As you point out, John, I’ve enjoyed a Cosgrovian hiatus, most of it spent tinkering with short stories and sending them off to the Atlantic. (No luck so far, though I’ve lately been hinting to my wife that I might be content with a vanity edition, along the lines of Sterling’s Gold.)

I vaguely remember enjoying Season 4, but I’ll cop to the same amnesia you both describe: It’s been so long now that Don’s tobacco screed and Peggy’s lipstick-stained teeth feel like stray moments from a dimly recollected dream, or a hokey flashback. In my case, this may be due to the fact that without the need to stay alert for purposes of the TV Club, I was able to put down my notes, replenish my single malt, and just submit to Mad Men’s velvety seductions.

Mad Men (Season 5)
Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse)

By Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Like you, Julia, I have found succor, during Don Draper’s long absence, in a little casual infidelity. But my flings with other shows, like The Hour, Luck, and Boardwalk Empire, while they presented a pleasant enough diversion, ultimately tended only to underline the superior quality of the storytelling in Mad Men. I gamely showed up at the appointed hour each week and tried to enjoy them, but there was always that nagging feeling that I was making the most of a less-than-inspired substitution.

The worst instance of this, for me, was Downton Abbey. Sure, it has some of Mad Men’s bewitching period glamour and production design, but its plot machinations are painfully schematic and, with a few exceptions, each character is archetypically Good or Evil. Talk about people who do not change! I struggled to enjoy Downton after I noticed that the reason the series moves so quickly is that no single scene, no matter how momentous, runs much longer than 60 seconds. (Now that I’ve mentioned this, you’ll start to notice it, too. Apologies if it ruins the show.)

“Want to know how we come up with unexpected twists? We just do the stuff people actually do,” Weiner said in his revealing conversation with John. And one thing I love about Mad Men is that it’s so lush with credibly human complication: When the plot does twist, you don’t experience that distracting inkling that the writers are manipulating players on a chessboard. On the contrary, some of the big surprises—like Betty suddenly firing Carla—unfold without any foreshadowing, or any of the character “groundwork” you typically find in cable drama. If anything, it sometimes feels like a single character turns the tables on the writers, upsetting, in one rash move, the neat trajectory of the show. And that’s refreshing: People are spontaneous, and impulsive. In real life we’re often mystified when a friend drops an excellent catch like Dr. Faye and proposes to a dingbat like Megan.

That said, I join you, Julia, in calling bullshit on Weiner’s suggestion that his characters don’t change. One of Mad Men’s great pleasures has been watching Peggy evolve over the course of four seasons, and it would be hard to conclude, during that final, mournful clinch with Roger last season, that Joan hasn’t changed. (“So that night we got mugged, that was the last time?” Roger asked. “I wish I’d known.”) And what about poor Midge? A minor character, to be sure, but it was heartbreaking to see that snappy, vivacious bohemian who told Don, in the very first episode, “I don’t make plans and I don’t make breakfast” brought so low.

Perhaps it’s just the women who change—the women, and society at large. I don’t think that Don really can evolve, and I’m not sure that we want him to. If the Falling Don icon is meant to represent “a man whose life is in turmoil,” then it seems implicit that he can never land on his feet. Don’s turmoil—with his family, his colleagues, his women, himself—is the endlessly renewable tension that gives the show its life.

This is one reason that I’m dubious about the long-term prospects of the Calvet-Draper union. What do we know about Megan so far? She’d like a Peggy Olson career but she won’t get needy or political if, on a whim, her boss has sex with her; she can drill Sally and Bobby Draper in conversational French; she’s not fussed by a spilled milkshake. No wonder Don proposes! Goodbye turmoil—the woman is a walking palliative. If this were Downton Abbey, where for most characters the die is cast by their fourth or fifth scene, Megan would forever retain all the accommodating promise that Don sees in her right now. But this is Mad Men, so I would bet that in very short order either she’ll turn out to be an absolute monster, or Don will just lose interest and subject her to the standard indignities. Or both. After all, if Roger couldn’t find happiness by marrying Don’s secretary, Don seems unlikely to do so.

I’m glad we’re all still in agreement that the show is at its best when it hews close to the office, and the business. For SCDP, Season 4 ended on something of a cliff-hanger. Have further heads rolled? Did Don make another play for the “beans, vinegars and sauces” account at Heinz? And most importantly, what has become of the perennially stocking-footed Bert Cooper, who when last we saw him had announced his intention to resign, if only he could locate his loafers? Did he walk? We’ll find out this weekend.

You there—get my shoes!


Slate’s TV Club will be chatting with readers about the Mad Men premiere and what to expect from the show’s fifth season. Join them on Facebook at noon on Monday, March 26 to take part in the chat.