No medium does historical epic like television, and no TV show has ever done it better than Mad Men. This is simply one of the five best shows in the history of the medium. Some critics have said that the quality of the show has dipped a little from its incredible first few seasons. Don’t believe it.
The story of Mad Men has now entered its final year, covering 1969. Seven of the final fourteen episodes played in April and May, with the rest coming next Spring. Without seeing the grand finale, and without giving away any plot spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen the first seven episodes yet, let’s explore why this is still one of the all-time great shows.
To break down a TV show to see how it works, you first have to identify the unique story challenges the writers must solve week in and week out writing each episode. Historical epic is the most complex of all television genres, so there is a long list of challenges to solve. But the biggest challenge with this form is always: how do you connect the larger societal forces and events to the individual characters, each affecting the other, without the characters appearing to be nothing more than illustrations of history?
This challenge is especially difficult on Mad Men, which is set during the 1960s. The 60s was the ultimate over-the-top decade, and long ago entered the public consciousness as a “greatest hits” of events, including the JFK assassination, student protests against the Vietnam War, race riots, hippies and the San Francisco “Summer of Love,” the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Woodstock and so much more.
So in creating the show, Matthew Weiner used this designing principle: show how each of the major characters goes through their own decade of liberation while avoiding the obvious clichéd references to the “decade of liberation.”
Much of the greatness of the show lies in the brilliance of that designing principle. It allows the writers tremendous diversity of story over the seven seasons and eighty plus episodes. I can’t think of a single show in the history of television, with the possible exception of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone, where there has been such difference in story structure from one episode to another.
This is unheard of in traditional TV Drama. The most popular TV genre in every country that makes television is the police procedural, which is essentially a detective story. This form is at the opposite end of the genre spectrum from Mad Men. In police procedural, every episode is structurally the same. The hero’s desire is always to solve the crime. Now obviously this repetitive structure is very popular with audiences, but it makes it almost impossible for this type of show to achieve greatness (I discuss how a recent procedural, The Killing, did just that in my TV Drama Class).
For those who would like to watch the first half of season seven now, one of the most important things to look for is how the writers vary the story structure from episode to episode, while keeping laser focus on the show’s designing principle of tracking the slow liberation of the main characters. At the same time, watch how the writers weave the major historical events of 1969 into the characters’ lives and business dealings, without letting history dominate the story.
This naturally leads to a second key story element found in great TV drama, and particularly in Mad Men, a technique I call the character web. This technique has to do with how all the characters are connected, but also set in contrast to one another. Using Mad Men’s designing principle of tracking the liberation of main characters over the decade of the 60s, Weiner began with his characters connected to one another within a single ad agency, but each enslaved in a different way. The most important of these characters, and most deeply enslaved, was Don Draper.
To see how the character set-up on Mad Men was so revolutionary, let’s compare it to another of the five best TV dramas of all time (in my humble opinion), Breaking Bad, and its lead character Walter White. Breaking Bad was historic in that the character change of the hero was right in the original premise of the show: creator Vince Gilligan famously wanted to take Walter “from Mr. Chips to Scarface, from protagonist to antagonist.”
This had never been done before in American television. The vast majority of American TV had no character change at all. The same hero played out a slightly different set of plot beats every week. But putting the hero’s character change right in the premise meant that every plot beat over five seasons of Breaking Bad was at the service of character, and would push Walter’s character change in incremental steps all the way to the end.
Character change is not in the premise line of Mad Men, but as we’ve seen, it is essential to the designing principle of the show. And the difference between these two main characters has everything to do with how each show achieves greatness.
Notice that Walter’s change has a clear direction and endpoint: from good to bad, from “protagonist to antagonist.” Not Don’s. Don is much more ambiguous and complex. From the very beginning, he is a fake creation, of his own making. His entire identity is based on a lie. He expresses the fundamental character element on which all American storytelling has been based: the idea that a person can totally re-create who they are. Don and Gatsby may have very different desires within two different decades, but they are the same guy.
How does Don’s original characterization affect his change over the course of the show? To run that change out over seven seasons means a much higher level of character subtlety than we find even with as complex a character as Walter White. Don’s revelations about himself are not big detective reveals. These are minute self-revelations, often with one step forward and two steps back. That can be frustrating for viewers, and slow. But with patience, viewers can have insights about how they too can grow in this culture, insights that can be gained from no other work of drama.
So a second story element to study as you watch the first half of season seven is the sequence of Don’s self-revelations, the increments of his change and growth. In many ways it is quite astounding.
This leads to one final reason for the greatness of Mad Men, and something to look for as season seven unwinds. I mentioned at the beginning that historical epic is the most complex of all TV genres, because the writer must match the characters to the nation. This is both its biggest strength and hardest challenge.
Mad Men isn’t just about the liberation of a number of characters, especially Don. It’s about the liberation, or maturation, of characters laid on top of the maturation of a country. In Mad Men, that means breaking free of the childish notion of absolute freedom, the culture of expectations that can never be achieved.
This idea that everyone is free and devoid of all social restraints, that you can re-create yourself and become anyone you want, is a beautiful and extremely powerful notion. It is also, as American storytelling has always pointed out, ultimately false, and very costly.
What sets Mad Men apart from all other shows in American television history is that it matches highly detailed, complex, individualized characters with the larger American culture. No other show has even come close to taking on such a huge thematic challenge.
In creating his character web, Weiner didn’t just come up with unique weaknesses and forms of slavery for each of his leads. He gave them all America’s weakness, the weakness that comes from extreme individualism, which is isolation. They may think they want money and power, but for them to get free, they must each form some kind of communal connection. Over the course of almost ten years, the characters haven’t gotten there, and as one of the darkest shows in the history of TV, they may never get there. But that is their challenge.
And that is exactly what you should look for in the first half of season seven. In the extraordinary final episode of season six, Don self-destructs when he tells the Hershey executives that he ate their chocolate bar while growing up as an orphan in a brothel. This bit of honesty, at an inappropriate time, gets him suspended from work.
So as season seven begins, Don starts at the lowest point he has been in the entire show. He is out of work, drinking too much (even worse than usual), with his wife off in Los Angeles. The other major characters are, in many ways, at their lowest point as well. With Don out, the ad agency has lost its greatest creative talent. It’s still churning out ads selling the American Dream, but the genius who makes the story engine go is gone. Ted is running the West Coast office, but given his impossible love for Peggy, he’s almost as emotionally fractured and isolated as Don.
One of the things I talk about in detail in the TV Drama Class is how to sequence and build a season, which is the most important ability when writing for a serial drama. Mad Men’s first half of season seven is a textbook example of how it’s done.
With the above set-up for season seven established in episode one, watch how the writers track the different characters trying to get free at this late point in the show. Always they will dramatize the process by setting the two opposing forces of American culture, embedded within the characters, in conflict: money vs. communal bond, power vs. emotional connection, machine vs. art.
Obviously I’m barely scratching the surface here in explaining how master storytellers like Matthew Weiner and his staff write this brilliant show. There are many more techniques you can learn in the TV Drama Class. For those of you who have yet to watch the first half of season seven, you’re in for a real storytelling treat. And when these episodes are done, don’t despair. We still have seven more episodes to look forward to.