I watched Mad Men last night. I will watch Mad Men next week, and so on until the end. But it should have ended a long time ago. To be precise, it should have ended with the final episode of Season 3. That was when Sterling Cooper essentially dissolved itself in order to form a new firm, and when Betty finally decided to divorce Don. After all, that is one of the great advantages that art has over life. Unlike life, which just goes on and on, from one messy situation to another, a story creates meaning out of all that messiness, in part, by ending when certain tensions and conflicts reach some kind of resolution. By going on past Season 3, Mad Men is beginning to look more like life than like art.
There is another reason why Mad Men should have ended after Season 3. It was toward the end of that season that Kennedy was assassinated. Part of what made Mad Men so interesting was that it was set in that period of the early sixties in which the Zeitgeist of the fifties still held sway. Three things, occurring in less than one year, changed everything. The first was the assassination of Kennedy, in November, 1963. It is often said that it was then that we lost our innocence. In the following January, the Beatles came to The Ed Sullivan Show. This launched the British Invasion, in which everything from England suddenly became intrinsically more desirable, reinforced by the fact that James Bond movies were just beginning to catch on. It is interesting that the protagonist of Mad Men is James Bond on Madison Avenue, and that the firm he worked for was taken over by a British company, as if in anticipation of all this. Finally, in August of 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred, which began the Vietnam War. Historians may take exception to this remark, and for good reasons, but that was when Vietnam became important for the average American. Therefore, it would have been fitting to have Mad Men end when the “fifties” was brought to a close.
During the first three seasons, we enjoyed the guilty pleasures of watching the characters of Mad Men in all their racist, sexist, and homophobic glory. (Included in that list should be something expressing their callous insensitivity to those who are handicapped, but if there is a corresponding term for such, I am unaware of it). But it’s been done now, and recent displays of political incorrectness have fallen flat. Furthermore, the tension we felt in wondering if Don’s past would catch up with him is gone. There was still some of that in Season 4, what with federal agents making a routine investigation into Don’s past, but somehow the death of Anna put an end to that.
Well, if continued episodes of Mad Men there must be, I have a couple of suggestions to make. I make these suggestions not as the result of some carefully thought out theory of aesthetics, but out of a felt need, deep and visceral. First of all, there is an unresolved tension that has been building up this season concerning Don’s philandering. Beginning with Sylvia, she and Don started having routine sex in her apartment, where her husband might walk in at any time and catch them making “the beast with two backs.”
Let me be clear. It is not as though I do not understand human nature, for I have done as much myself. Having accidentally on purpose left my umbrella over at some friends’ house the night before, I went to pick it up on my lunch break. I did not have any definite plans, but when I looked into her eyes, I knew the moment had arrived. I kissed her lips, and they were warm and moist. The rational thing to do, the prudent thing, would have been for me to insist that she follow me over to my apartment, where we could continue in safety. But does anyone doubt that if I had I suggested as much, she would have said, “We’d better not”? In fact, I almost blew the deal by trying to get her to go into the bedroom, where at least there would be a closet to hide in, instead of using the couch. But the point I wish to get to is that once we had consummated our adulterous affair, from that point on my apartment served for our assignations. To persist in using her place, as Don did with Sylvia, save for that bizarre business the week before last, would have been madness indeed.
And just when I thought that nonsense was over, here comes last night’s episode, in which Don, knowing that Betty’s husband will soon be arriving at the camp, not only has sex with her in her room, but also spends the night, and even sleeps in. By the time he gets to the dining room, there are Betty and Henry, having breakfast, with no indication from the expression on her face of just how close they came to disaster. When you are getting a little on the side with your ex-wife, there is no excuse for not exercising discretion, especially when Don had his own room just a few doors away.
In other words, if we are going to see more Mad Men episodes, I need to see Don and some guy's wife get caught in flagrante delicto, and then see Don get himself pounded to a bloody pulp. By the way, I know that Pete Campbell is not likable the way Don is, because Don is tall and decidedly more cool, but there is a certain irony in the fact that after Pete went to all the trouble to get an apartment in town for his rendezvous, he is the one who gets caught. Of course, it goes a lot harder on Brenda, but then again, it is she who gets beaten up by her husband, while Don is home sleeping the sleep of the just. I think it is time for a little rough karma. And finally, whether it be from the letter that Anna wrote incriminating Don, or from the switched lighters in the first episode of this season, I would like to see Don be arrested by the FBI and have to go to prison for desertion.
You see what happens when a television series goes on for too long? It makes me mean and ornery.