Donald Draper’s Ever Expanding Box of Tricks.
This post is one long spoiler if you’re some kind of pathetic lameo who hasn’t seen the most recent episode of Mad Men. You’ve been warned.
Just what is the problem with Mad Men? It doesn’t suffer from style over substance, which considering the sumptuous style of the show seems the obvious possibility. Nor is it soapy, predictable, badly written or ill conceived. But still, there is something lacking. Some vital ingredient that it hasn’t quite figured out.
I suspect that Mad Men’s failing is handling its mighty ensemble cast. It’s a difficult task, that character wrangling business. Fleshing out each character without sacrificing a strong protagonist, introducing new threads without letting the old ones drop, getting a balance between character types without seeming like one long Benetton ad. We need only look to Deadwood, of course, to see how a genius wrangles an unruly stable of characters.
It’s tricky stuff if you’re not David Milch. And of late Mad Men has been falling well short of that illustrious mark. Where the fuck has Peggy been this season? And Joan? Though after leaving Sterling and Cooper I struggle to see how she’s ever going to get the attention her character deserves. And Salvatore’s unceremonious sacking! Tell me this isn’t the last we’re ever going to see of old Sal!
The knowledge that Betty (and Don’s home life more broadly) were not originally going to appear in the show might explain the current imbalance. All those interesting characters we were thrown in the first episodes have had to be scaled back to accommodate for Betty and the kids. Isn’t it always the way?
More than the struggles with ensemble juggling, Mad Men has been, at times, a little flaccid for my taste. It’s beautiful, quite distractingly so, and it is certainly clever, but where are its teeth? Where are those gripping narrative arcs? I want more of everything and everyone in this show. I want follow-through and I want complexity. I don’t want things to be forgotten and glossed over. I really want to see these people live.
Which is why the latest episode, The Hobo and the Gypsy, was such a joy. There are, of course, several threads in this episode, but the big news was Betty confronting Don with his little shoebox of past lives. I didn’t think she would, and even when she did, I didn’t think Don would cave and finally reveal himself to her. But he did and it was glorious.
I’ve always liked John Hamm as Don, but I’ve never been convinced he’s actually an actor. In this episode he finally proved himself. The moment Betty summons Don into his own office and confronts him with those little silver keys, the panic on Don’s face is a revelation. For the first time he is truly scared. We feel his terror. We all know that moment, when you realise the jig is finally up, you’ve been found out and there’s no going back, the other person has all the power and you are utterly exposed and vulnerable.
Don is angry and scared and overwhelmed by panic (we’re also continually aware that Don’s boho-schoolteacher mistress is sitting waiting for him in the car outside, a brilliant touch which adds yet another layer of tension) and even when he begins to tell Betty the truth, finally, it is hard to believe it’s actually happening. Yet it feels completely right. Dragging out these revelations would have been tedious and condescending, and Mad Men for once gives us just what we want.
There are so many exceptional moments in this episode (Joan breaking a vase over her self-pitying drip of a husband would have been the highpoint any other week) but Don’s confession under the bright lights of his kitchen, that carefully constructed domestic paradise, is not just an episode stealer but a season stealer. Mad Men won our minds in the very first episode of the very first season but at long last it is making a bid for our hearts as well.
Now, if it could just lay off those thunderously obvious metaphors with which it so loves to whack us about the head, we might have a truly great show on our hands.