I keeping meaning to write about Mad Men, if only to remark on how unexpectedly good it’s been since I began following it in real-time. Normally what happens is that I begin watching a long-running show just in time for it to take a turn for the worse; I caught up with Alias three episodes before its rocky finale, and its sequel Lost a mere two episodes before its much-reviled conclusion. But Mad Men this season — despite a slightly odd start — is every bit as good as ever. In fact, the most recent two episodes rank among the best in the entire series.
Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, both episodes have followed the thematic layered structure that seems to define the series’ most memorable installments. Last week keep circling back to the vulnerability and dangers facing women and minorities alike in the mid-’60s, while this most recent airing was basically built around the systematic emasculation of one of its central characters, Pete Campbell. It’s a testament to the strength of the series’ characterization that while Campbell richly deserved every humiliation visited upon him, you can’t help but feel bad for him. Childish and arrogant as he may be, the guy is never treated as an equal despite his accomplishments… and yet, he’s so obnoxious about expressing his frustration that you have trouble truly sympathizing. There are no heroes or villains in Mad Men, only people who do both good and bad things, and who are dealt good and bad luck in varying measures.
It’s also a testament to Mad Men’s writing that a lot of the thematic contrivances employed in this episode would feel grating and artificial in a lesser show, yet here they evolved naturally from long-brewing storylines. Campbell’s dust-up with Lane Pryce was practically inevitable; his wandering eye has been built up as a certainty; and the powerful final framing device of Ken Cosgrove’s introspective prose analysis of Pete’s misery (and Pete’s off-camera attempt to quash Cosgrove’s fiction out of resentment and jealousy) is a call back to the second season. You don’t see shows like this offer such rich payoff very often, which makes the collision of so many disparate-yet-related plot lines and developments all the more remarkable.
I hope someday to write half as well.