I came to Mad Men late, in the middle of the show’s second season. Unwilling to simply dive in and pick up in the middle of things and worry about catching up later, I exercised restraint and watched the first two seasons of the show on DVD. Watching the first two seasons this way allowed the story to unfold as a whole, without the interruptions of commercials or weeklong gaps between episodes.
It was clear to me that each season of Mad Men is conceived of as a long story, told in 13 parts, and held together over an extended arc. On DVD, I was enthralled by the way this story came together; the pacing I saw in uninterrupted viewing gave it and the characters an honesty that I thought spoke to exceptional storytelling ability. More than anything, though, I did not understand why some people found Mad Men boring.
Season 3 rolled around, and since I was ready for more Don Draper and company after all my DVD watching, I started to watch Mad Men with the rest of America, Sunday nights at 10 on AMC. Now, I was forced to deal with commercials, episodes, and the lack of instant gratification I had become accustomed to. Now I understood why Matthew Weiner’s lovingly crafted brainchild leaves some people cold. Still, I was still enthralled, but realized that watching Mad Men week-to-week rather than on DVD requires a completely different set of expectations, retention, and skills.
Basically, in order to sustain week-to-week viewing, I had to start using a new part of my Mad Men brain if I was going to keep up with the show in real time. That part of my Mad Men brain was going to be the one that savored moments and saw the beauty in the careful crafting of the show and story. I would also have to understand that in some instances, the broad strokes used to tell the story were going to extend for the full 13 episodes and there was nothing I could do about it.
While this “holding back” looked one way on the DVD and was satisfying in a setting that allowed for instant gratification, viewed in fragments on regular TV required patience. In terms of wanting answers to the questions the story posed I would just have to be confident that Matthew Weiner and company knew what they were doing. I had to acknowledge that yes, I might be impatient, but I had to maintain faith that it would be worth it — I’d be happy in the end.
What I’ve come to realize is that Mad Men is entirely about story and while the episodes have clear endings, they’re actually not discrete entities. This claim, of course, sounds completely unoriginal and intrinsic to the episodic drama, but it’s not in the case of Mad Men. In the world of this story, the writers have tried to create something like the understanding of actions and time that look a little bit like life. While the holiday party might be over, our interactions with the psychologist hired to do market research at the firm will have effects that echo through most of the New Year. As it goes for us, so too it goes for Don Draper.
As I said before, the story line for each season is laid out in a series of moments that don’t necessarily create full scenes or storylines resolved by the characters that particular week. Even if things are resolved in an episode, there’s a good chance the issue hasn’t fully died. The rule for week-to-week and DVDs viewer alike is this: if you were shown it, it’s important. Paraphrasing Chekov, that gun in the first act has to go off by the third. The only difference is that on Mad Men, we’re not totally sure which act is which and how the timing works among them. Successful viewing relies on knowing this rule and being able to hold moments and complex information in one’s head and giving them equal space to breathe.
What’s odd about Mad Men and watching the story in its fragmentary week-to-week state is that while it’s a show about advertising it comes off as not being designed for commercial interruption. As I mentioned above, the episodes are divided basically by time; the day or week ends, the episode ends. Within the shows themselves, however, there’s a fluidity that’s only obvious in moments of interruption. The best way to see this in action is to note how the commercial breaks always occur awkwardly during an episode on AMC.
Watching the show on DVD, it’s hard to tell when, exactly, it would have stopped and paused for a word from sponsors. On most shows, the act breaks are clear even when the commercials are removed. On Mad Men, Peggy might say something intriguing to Don, and we might expect a retort. Instead, another scene starts or we hear a word from BMW.
Without interruption, we see threads cast in a larger story. With the interruption, we’re asked to remember this moment and know that we’ve been shown this for a reason that will become clear at some point – maybe sooner, maybe later – depending on the way the story should be told.
When watching Mad Men in an uninterrupted format, it’s easy to tell that the seasons have been solid, the acting good, and the moments relevant because all can and will be revealed as the cohesive story that has clearly been crafted for a long format. On Sunday nights at 10PM, it can be hard to tell when an episode is good or if the season shows promise (though, to be fair, Season 4 has shown an enormous amount of promise in what we’ve seen so far and in the fact that there’s nothing obvious about where things might go) because the puzzle pieces have not locked together yet.
So, as viewers, we’re forced to look at and contemplate the perfection of the moment and evaluate the show from that point. Many of the moments are beautiful. In telling the story this way, Mad Men asks us to slow down as viewers and try to piece together who everyone is over the weeks rather than in one solid evening of character study and exposition. There are themes constantly teased out of the plot that viewers know are important – for example, in season 4, identity and appearances vs. reality are becoming vital issues, and Mad Men is always, always concerned about the big theme of change – but we only see characters in moments of these themes, acting them out in little bits.
The success of the show in its weekly format depends on how well these vignettes of theme go and the audience’s willingness to appreciate the small moments that will mesh together to become the big ones. The success of the season depends on how they all fit together and how actively (and patiently) the audience engages in this project.