Mad World on Kritik: Prelude to Mad Men Season 7.4
"What's Next?" Part 1
Guest Writer: Dana Polan

Saturday, May 3, 2014

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The prelude to the fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"What's Next?"

Written by: Dana Polan (New York University)

Part 1

What do we know about any episode of a continuing TV serial before it airs?  I want today (literally today: Saturday before my assigned episode airs tomorrow) to, paraphrasing a key science fiction series from the time of Mad Men, boldly go where no (Mad) men have gone before, and try science-fictionally to predict what tomorrow's episode will be about. I won't do a lot of that, and will concentrate more generally on what we know going into any episode such as this. In Part 1, I want to talk about how we move toward endings and, as well, toward the next installment of a series we know is ending. In Part 2 (to be written after tomorrow night's episode), I'll look at what I got wrong and analyze what we were given instead. I do expect to get it wrong. While there are certain aspects of Mad Men that might make us think we're in a predictable narrative universe--for example, the myriad plot lines of the myriad characters, our background knowledge about the ways this show interweaves plot lines and deliberate veering and unpredictability, our even broader background knowledge of what happened in each moment of the 1960s (quick, go check out "1969" on Wikipedia!)--and that we might want to draw on as aids in figuring out where the story is going (to the above, we might add the "Next on Mad Men" montage we see at the end of each episode, something I'll return to), I think little of this really helps us in knowing what's next, even though we know something's coming. (As a famous song from the beginning of the Sixties "predicts": "Something's coming, something good, if I can wait! Something's coming, I don't know what it is, but it is gonna be great!")

In the case of Mad Men, our present interest in how we get from episode to episode and how they all add up is piqued additionally by our knowledge that it's all coming to an end, the series going off the air after next year. We watch each episode for its immediate narrative developments but also with the forethought that this is all winding down, that it's all going somewhere (but where?:we need to remember that Matt Weiner worked on The Sopranos with its (in)famous cut-to-black as its send-off so all bets are off for Mad Men. So there's at least a double narrative movement here: episode to episode, and episode to the last episode that brings it in some way to a stop.

A Man Called Shenandoah and Coronet Blue come to mind, and wasn't Jason McCord in Branded sort of amnesiac since he got knocked out during that massacre at Bitter Creek and couldn't remember why he was the only survivor?--and one would never find out what they needed to know since the shows would be cancelled before any final episode. But it has increasingly become the norm to end shows with an ending, even if a deconstructive one (the cut to black on The Sopranos, the looping back to a previous series in Newhart).

Curb Your Enthusiasm and even more so with Six Feet Under where it seemed so logical that a series about funerary matters terminated on the fade-out of its principal personages. (There's also a sort of converse: instead of dying, characters affirm life through marriage but this still signals the "death" of the show and it gets cancelled one season or so after the wedding, or certainly once the couple has kids. Think, for instance, of the last seasons of Bewitched or Get Smart or Mork and Mindy. As I've argued elsewhere, there is a curious tension in such shows between the affirmation that marriage and offspring are supposed to represent and the recognition that such story developments derive from a desperate desire to invigorate the show but instead jump the shark and lead to death. See "Television's Aesthetic of Dead-ness".)

Sometimes, more likely, the tying up of the ending is not so much about the assertion of mortality as about the characters finishing up their job or their task or their mission and going on to some (often indefinite) future: think of The Larry Sanders Show with the end of the series coinciding, within the fictional world, within Larry's retiring, or even more so, and famously, The Fugitive--the first major show to tie up its narrative and not simply end in media res--where Richard Kimble finds the one-armed man who killed his wife and has to be a fugitive no more.

These endings make sense: they tie things up, they unite an ending within the fiction with the ending of the fiction itself. But even when the ending doesn't have that direct logic of answering or solving an initial and initiating question--for instance, will Kimble ever find the one-armed man?--it's clear from most recent cases, including the postmodern ones like Newhart or Seinfeld that virtually any ending can seem to fit, can seem to bring closure, can ultimately seem right. Once we're given an ending, even if it's not the one we would have chosen (for many viewers, the cut to black in The Sopranos is irrelevant: what actually happened is that Tony got shot by a hitman or he didn't or he got shot by someone completely other or...), we take them as fitting.

However Mad Men ends a year from now will undoubtedly make sense. It's not worth really guessing at it since there are so many options and most of them will work and, once we've experienced them, will retrospectively fold back onto all previous episodes and make it all seem so logical. Of course, we'd like to believe there are limits to what can happen in a bounded narrative world like this one, set in a supposedly real New York of the 1960s (but then we might remember that the science-fictional Mork and Mindy started as a spin-off from Happy Days where Mork confronted the Fonz in a supposedly real suburbia of the 1950s; nothing prevents any series from going anywhere).

Referring back to some of the logics of conclusion that I outlined above, we can see some of the ways Mad Men doesn't seem easily to suggest where its narrative is going. And as I'll argue in a moment, these also make it difficult to know where we're going from any moment to the next. Take, for instance, the closure that death offers on shows like Six Feet Under: while death has dogged some episodes of Mad Men (a suicide, an elderly father's passing, an officer killed in war), it's never seemed central to the world of these characters, ever aging as they may be. Death is what they react and rebound from (for example, those assassinations and killings, from JFK to MLK to Bobby Kennedy to the Chicago nurses who were victims of Richard Speck, that the characters on Mad Men watch on the news), but it is not centrally what happens to the central Mad Men characters.

Or take the affirmations of marriage that signal sometimes that a show is running out of steam and is trying to reinvigorate itself even the attempt frequently fails and ends up little more than a delay tactic. Well, even if Mad Men's marriage plot might seem as of last week to be coming to an end, the marriage itself happened a while back (and it didn't then signal a televisual "jumping the shark" although some characters within the fiction clearly saw it as an absurd move on Don Draper's part), and in any case marriage doesn't seem a decisive, conclusive act for the series (there have been lots of marriages--and lots of ends to marriages--and yet life goes on).

And the notion of a job or a job assignment coming to an end is such a constant in Mad Men that here too there would seem to be a disconnect between consequential ending and the moment-to-moment terminations in which someone loses a job (Don included, although last week's episode showed that his fellow partners were unclear whether they had let him go or let him go on leave) or finishes a bit of work. No one on Mad Men is chasing after their own equivalent of the one-armed man. There are goals and dreams and plans, of course, and there is also of course a more general dissatisfaction to life that these "mad" men are often living with and this too could lead to a searching. But the former--the goals and so on--are often moment to moment (get this or that account, placate this or that client, make peace or war with this or that co-worker), and the latter--the quest for meaningfulness in life--is so nebulous but also so easily given over to incomplete answers (for example, Don could drop out and become a bead-wearing counter-culturalist, but we've already seen some other characters veer toward that path) that it is not clear what the meaningful decision could be that would end the show rightly.

But this general lack of an overall narrative drive to the series means that it is hard also to read any determining logic in the movement from episode to episode. There are lots and lots of characters and lots of moment-to-moment stories they are caught up in (and can be caught up in anew) so there's not necessarily the necessity for any one episode to massively take up the plotlines of immediate preceding episodes. Thus, to take just one example, two episodes ago, minor characters who were also minority characters--the two black women in the firm--came to the narrative foreground as their white bosses shuffled them around (and in a way tried to make them minor again, moving them out of sight--and here one might predict that they won't probably get as much airtime in subsequent episodes: Mad Men does deal at times with race but also seems itself to be caught in an assumption that a single race-focused episode dispenses with more consistent engagement with the topic). The black secretaries lie in narrative reserve, in a sense, and the series can make stories out of them as long as it's expedient.

In trying to figure out where the many narratives, both the ones that previous episodes construct suspense and anticipation about (for example, will Don keep his promise to his partners from last week's show or is everything setting up for a knock-down drag out fight with his newly assigned supervisor Lou?), and the ones that we didn't even yet know would be actualized as new narrative lines (would we have ever anticipated Dawn becoming office manager, even if for what might only be a short time?), we are not helped at all by the "Next on Mad Men" that ends each episode. Or we're helped to the extent that the fragmentary previews give us not narrative lines but conventional glimpses of the work (and sometimes domestic) world of the characters and frequently present these as so many bits and pieces of conventionality: the "Next on" confirms how Mad Men only vaguely has a narrative arc and is really just about characters getting by from day to day, in both sloggingly repetitive mode (the 9 to 5 world that just transpires) and in momentary crisis mode (the breakdowns that can happen in that normally dull 9 to 5 world).

Thus, all we really know about tomorrow night's episode from the preview is that doors open or close (as they often do in offices), that things of consequence are announced by some of the characters (as they often do in offices), that people glance at other people or just look off into space with perplexity (as they often do in offices), etc. Perhaps the only image that stands out is a dangling phone, but even that bit could go anywhere in the series or mean anything... or not be important at all.

Additionally important is the "Previously on" that begins each episode (although we won't see that until tomorrow of course): here, we sometimes are given glimpses of narrative lines that had long dropped out and that now might be given new priority (thus, in its last few episodes, the "Previously on" has notified us that Don's family life, and first marriage, haven't been forgotten after a season opener that was mostly about the work world).

Utimately, I suppose I have little idea as to what will happen tomorrow night. But let me venture a few guesses and try to explain the logic behind them (while being totally prepared to be wrong; these are my guesses at a logic that the series suggests but also sets out sometimes to subvert):

1. The Don/Megan narrative might be of minimal presence in this episode and may not even appear at all. This is a series that is often adept at making us think something has become a major narrative thread and then minimizing it in later episodes (Peggy now almost never seems to have had the baby she had early on in the show). Megan may be out of the picture but even if she's not, tomorrow's episode might likely pick other stories to concentrate on. And it could well be that Betty--who's seemed to flit in and out of recent seasons--might well disappear again.

2. It's about time for real history to assert itself as it often does a few episodes into each season (political assassination, social ferment, crime, etc.). We had Nixon's inauguration in episode one of this season but that served primarily to give a date to the episode (and to the start of the season). It seems to me we're ready for "1969" to come on stage more explicitly. But which "1969": Altamount? Charles Manson (better stay from Jay Sebring's house, Megan!)? Woodstock (couldn't you see Sally heading there from that Connecticut private school?).

3. As suggested above, Dawn and her fellow black workers will likely fade into the background again (and not just for this coming episode but for many to come). In the racial logic of this series, they got their token narrative moment.

4. Anything I could imagine definitely will happen might not.

Admittedly, that's not a lot but for me the very absence of predictability tells me a lot about Mad Men and how it operates as a continuing series. I can't wait to see tomorrow's episode and then try to figure out why what's in it ended up in it.


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