The Girl With The Indian Braids – Why Mad Men Is A Television Novel
By Erinna Mettler
THE MAD MEN PARTY IS FINISHED AND I AM BEREFT. I know, the whole world has written about Mad Men but I just caught up with the finale and I have been obsessing over it ever since. The end seemed so perfect to me, so utterly satisfying that it gave me the same feeling I get when I finish a brilliant ground-breaking novel. I’m not the first person to think that Mad Men had a lot in common with good literature. In 2011, working on his own television script, Salman Rushdie told The Observer newspaper,
“In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist. You have control in the way that you never have in the cinema. … if you have that, then what you can do with character and story is not at all unlike what you can do in a novel.”
Rushdie’s TV show is yet to make an appearance but Mad Men has continued through eight years of superbly written drama which offered viewers much more to chew on than the average long form teleplay.
I was late to the party. I only started to watch Mad Men three or four weeks in. I didn’t like it much. I thought it was too knowing, too slow, a little contrived. Then I watched a rerun of the pilot and I was hooked. In retrospect it was a bit like starting a novel at the end of chapter three. Mad Men wasn’t something to dip in and out of randomly. This was a series that required a commitment, it was only worth watching if you did it properly, only then would you be rewarded.
I revisited the pilot again today; if you are a fan I’d advise you to do the same. The beginning perfectly foreshadows the end. It’s as if the show’s creator (Matthew Weiner) had the whole eight years planned out beforehand. In that first episode Don is introduced alone, trying to get that lightbulb moment on a campaign for Lucky Strike, scribbling half ideas on a notepad, engaging in conversation with a stranger to gain some insight into their thoughts for his own creative ends. Don pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a writer in his first few moments of screen time. Peggy stands alone and ogled by men in the elevator to her new career. Joan shows her around and suggests she uses her body to get noticed and snag a man. Pete’s first words are, ‘I promise I will get home safe.’ Roger drinks, flirts and dispatches one liners and Betty is barely present. Now look at what happened in the final episode: Don gets the perfect idea, Pete flies safely off in a Lear Jet with his family, Joan realises she can do it alone, Peggy realises she can’t, Roger drinks and flirts and dispatches one-liners and Betty absently stares death in the face.
Obviously you couldn’t plan every bit of a 90 hour TV show in advance and Weiner has stated that he didn’t know what was going to happen in the end until about half way through. What he did do was write each season before it was filmed. Every dozen episodes, from series one to four, was its own complete narrative, which referred back to the previous narrative. This approach is more akin to writing the parts of a novel than it is to the traditional television approach. In the middle of season four, when Weiner had his lightbulb moment regarding the end, the whole modus operandi must have become decidedly more novelistic. Most writers I know will start with a beginning and some characters and will then develop these through a first draft until about halfway through they know how they will end, they then journey between those two points on a meandering creative highway. This is how I write, the initial idea, the beginning, the end and then connect it all together. I know some writers sit down and write front to back but I don’t see it as a linear process, ideas have to inform ideas, stories have to veer off into new directions before meeting up again like old friends.
Mad Men is a series of two halves, before and after the ending was known. This should mean that the writing in the latter half has more levels than that in the first. I would say that by and large this is true. Look at the finale again, all the things that should have happened, happened. The ends are tied up just enough to be satisfying and the references to previous seasons are plentiful. Take for example, the character of Stan Rizzo. He first appears in Season Four Episode 6 (supposedly close to the point at which Weiner knew how the show was going to end). In that episode he and Peggy clash and end up working on a campaign in the nude after an argument about him reading Playboy. This introduction is the beginning of a classic hate/love relationship that spans the next four seasons. There were criticisms that the pairing of Stan and Peggy was too unexpected but if you’ve seen the whole show you’d have picked up on it from the beginning, it was always going to happen.
Interestingly, this mid-point episode also gives us the flashback to Don’s first meeting with Roger and of his entry, by devious means, into the world of advertising.
I have heard it said the show was so popular because it showed us what our parents (or grandparents) were like when they were young. This works for me personally, I was born in the late sixties to parents in their forties who already had teenage daughters. They’d been in the army and travelled the world to an Elvis soundtrack but by the time I came along they’d settled back in England and Dad was working for local government. I felt like I’d missed out, that they had a shared history I didn’t know about. Mad Men provided an insight into that history, but it wasn’t the sanitised version of the past presented by the media of the 1960s or even by family anecdote, rather it looked at the period through the lens of the uncensored present, the spotlight shining brightly on all the sex and sexism, the politics, prejudice and neglectful parenting. There is a general consensus that life was better in the past but it wasn’t really, only nostalgia is better, the reality was just the same, often worse. Mad Men helps us understand this in the same way that a novel, even a contemporaneous novel, can say much more about society’s discontents. Think of all the books read by the characters in the series, each one carefully placed to inform the events unfolding on screen: Portnoy’s Complaint, The Godfather, Atlas Shrugged, The Best of Everything, the list goes on. The novel has long been considered the art form in which the unsayable can be said. No doubt had the series continued to the end of the 20th Century, grey haired Don would have been seen reading American Pyscho, Underworld and the collected works of David Foster Wallace.
I’ve been trying to work out why the show made such an impression on me. I think it’s because my favourite type of art is the type that calls for intellectual input from the audience. The novel is the locus of consumer creativity and Mad Men was better if you picked up on the clues and put them all together to get something else. It had many more layers than The Wire or The Sopranos; they had the characters and the action but Mad Men had the guts to include the quiet times, the pauses to be filled by your own thoughts. It made you understand the way of the world more if you arrived at it yourself instead of having it spoon fed to you. I was taught that good writing is about what you leave out. You have to give just enough information for the reader to connect the dots. Think of that final episode, the final image, Don meditates on a Californian cliff-top and then comes the lightbulb moment (accompanied by a Tibetan bell) and a smile of satisfaction comes over his face. The action jumps to the world famous Coke ad. We aren’t taken by the hand and shown what happens between the cliff-top and the ad. There are some who would say that the smile was because Don has become enlightened, he has finally found inner peace and spends the rest of his life dropped out in Anderson Canyon, that the Coke ad is just a way of confirming his blissed out state. The other scenario is that Don went back to being an ad man and made the most famous ad in history. If you have been paying attention you know that the latter is true (Weiner has since confirmed that this was his intention) because you have been set up to draw that conclusion. This is what novels do; the reader is drip fed information throughout a book in order to come to the realisation the author wants them to come to at the end. Coke has featured prominently throughout the show. In the penultimate episode Don is asked to ‘fix the coke machine – it’s like a Buick,’ (another Draper Ad campaign) in Season One when Betty Draper went briefly back to modelling she was the Mom in the perfect Coca-Cola family, and then there is the juxtaposition of these two images:
Let’s not forget how ground-breaking that ad is; when the series starts Don’s black waiter is chastised for talking to him, people of different races couldn’t even sit next to each other on the bus. The ultimate Coke ad is probably the first advert I remember seeing on TV, Weiner is no doubt aware that this is the case for many Mad Men watcher. The line between the past and the present joins into a circle and we all get to ride on the carousel. The girl with the Indian braids is just slightly different in the ad to the way she appears in the reality of the show. Memory is altered by the act of creation. Don (and Weiner) is the ultimate vampire creator, drawing on anything and everything to make the connection between life and art, just like a novelist would do.
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