While I cranked up Season Three of Game of Thrones for a Thanksgiving Binge-Watch, a was visited by a thought: Mad Men is a soap opera. I think the chain of associations ran something like this: I am suddenly quite interested in Game of Thrones and definitely looking forward to more Justified and Archer in January. However, I could not be less interested in what happens next on Mad Men.
Clearly, my tastes are not squarely aligned with the Golden Age of Television favorites. But why did I become less interested in Mad Men? Why was I disappointed by the final season of Breaking Bad? Why does the US version of House of Cards leave me utterly cold?
I think part of my response has to do with the overwhelming air of seriousness and self-regard these shows muster. If you're going to tell me--with lighting, sound, pacing, and plot--that you are the most important television show of our times, then you had better live up to it. If, however, you admit that you're for tossing back popcorn as much as for any greater insights into humanity, then I have a lot more patience with you.
Let's be honest. Mad Men lost the plot long ago. The show is no longer about one man's secret: Don's identity has been revealed many times to many people. Nor is it any longer about the fortunes of an advertising agency: it has been unclear for much of the last two seasons just what kind of financial shape SCDP is in. At this point, characters seem to be introduced and plots launched simply to keep the show afloat and mobile--and not for any greater reason. The writers are simply giving the characters additional things to do--without, in many cases, addressing the conflicts that were at the heart of such characters from the show's debut. (The sidelining of Roger is a prime example; the unraveling of Pete Campbell an admirable exception).
So, what's left of the show's original draw? Well, the show remains an opportunity to immerse oneself in--and criticize--the intrigues of the rich. Similarly, it remains a visually captivating period drama, in costume.
What, then, makes it so difficult to see that Mad Men, despite all its pretenses, is still, in part, an heir of Dynasty or Dallas--not to mention kin to The Tudors and Game of Thrones?
I'm certainly not the first to say so: it's the show's focus on its male stars. We do not have a genre called "straight male soap opera." Therefore, the show automatically gets granted status alongside something like The Odyssey--with Don Draper as the lost, sojourning man. He is imbued, by the viewer, with great psychological depth and complexity. We read all of this from Jon Hamm's pressed lips and tight jaw. Yet, when (at the end of last season) he finally seeks to reveal to his daughter his hidden roots, I find myself yawning. First, this offer of biographical truth is beside the point. Teenage Sally is angry with him because she caught him committing adultery with the mother of a boy she liked. He never apologizes for what she witnessed. The looming, ramshackle house where he was born is supposed to speak for him. Second, from a dramatic standpoint, the show has already revealed to viewers much of Don's early years. So, we aren't really hungry to know (hence, the credits begin to roll before he can begin to explain to Sally what we already know).
I think the continuing appeal of Don and company (and I'd extend this claim to BrBa's Walter White) lies in vanity. Viewers like Don because they ascribe to him an endless depth of personality: a depth they either fancy is akin to their own or, instead, want to understand and, perhaps, repair, like a therapist or a mother. My own sense, from dealing with people of the first ilk, is that they are absolutely detrimental to be in relationship with. It's impossible to achieve their regard, to have one's own complexity or concrete needs acknowledged. Unless acknowledging you suits the story they like to tell about themselves, forget it. Now, of course, we all have the capacity for extreme self-involvement. In fact, sometimes the acts we tell ourselves are good for others can be based on a confusion of their concrete needs with our psychological needs. It seems to me, though, that the strong, silent type also feels justified in demanding that you go hunting for his psychological complexity, his reasoning, his feelings of remorse. There's a great power in withholding--that is, until the other person decides they can live without whatever you're holding back. And that, dear friends, is where I am with Mad Men.
I was trying to imagine a narrative about adult women that featured such a character and drew such intense loyalty and vaulted praise. I can't think of any examples. Indeed, I find myself recalling the scholar Jennifer Rycenga's observation that Joni Mitchell's songs are so rare because they are told by a woman who is no man's wife or courtesan. Surely, even in Game of Thrones, wives and courtesans are the primary possibilities for women. And even novels written by women often speak more of frustrated odysseys than of women on the move. Toni Morrison has famously been trying to tell stories of women's adventures since Sula (1973), which famously omits the title character's journey away from her home in The Bottom. After several novels in which women journey from one domestic space to another (such as Beloved and Paradise), she may have finally succeeded in A Mercy (2008), whose protagonist strikes out in search of love but, failing to find it, must journey on. Of course, Morrison's Florens is strong but anything but the silent type. We are not asked continually to seek emotional dispensations from a withholder. Rather, she offers us that which she knows how to say. Even a younger novelist, Stephanie Grant, gives us a truncated journey in her award-winning Map of Ireland. While the young white lesbian at its center wants to leave racist 1970s Boston and journey with a shadowy black militant group, in the end she just can't. The female Huck Finn novel barely gets going "downriver" before the getaway car stalls and she returns home. What are the stories in which a woman embarks on a journey--perhaps one with an indefinite destination--on which she encounters an array of personalities and societies? A sort of female Odysseus--or Gulliver? And, more important, when such a woman presented herself in a fiction, who has heralded her?