So far, season six of Mad Men has been as sharply styled as we’ve come to expect from the series. As it makes its way through the ’60s, however, it feels ever more like a parade of red herrings. Each episode is an hour-long trance, seducing with crisp colors and sleek period details, offering clues that always lead nowhere. For the two-hour season premiere, it feels like the writers were playing a game of exquisite corpse, pulling “Betty,” “St. Marks’ Place,” and “goulash” out of fishbowls labeled “character,” “location,” and “prop,” then tasking themselves with making a scene out of their selections. These character/location/prop stagings have always permeated the series. For example: “Peggy,” “soundstage,” “Honda motorcycle”; “Sally,” “American Museum of Natural History,” “underpants.” It’s easy to imagine the writers creating scenes with almost any of the other characters in the same locations interacting with the same props; a Roger (John Slattery)/museum/underpants scene is, in the world of Mad Men, quite conceivable. There’s been lots of other randomness throughout the years: Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) doing the Charleston in 1963, Joan (Christina Hendricks) playing the accordion, Don (Jon Hamm) wearing a Jai Alai glove. Because the show’s characters are so fully realized, the discordant locations and props are all the more surprising and superficially interesting. What can you do with a character? Have them act out of character; drop them somewhere unexpected. Furthermore, the opportunities for prop gags in Mad Men are endless, focusing as it does on postwar advertising.
All of these scenes draw on the surprising convergences of the surreal to seem meaningful in their uncanniness. Of course, surreal—with a small “s”—is a two-bit adjective these days, having little to do with the psychoanalytic and Marxist motivations of the Surrealist movement. It’s a generic descriptive used to denote anything unusual, out of the ordinary. Ironically, the word “surreal” has become commonplace, even banal. In the visual world, there’s hardly an artistic movement easier to rip off (except perhaps, pop art). Place A next to G instead of B, and voilà, surreal! But does Joan + accordion amount to anything? There’s a world of difference between something looking “interesting” and actually meaning something.
Even the historical events in Mad Men are part of its empty surrealism. We experience the Kennedy assassination as ruined wedding, the integration of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as office prank. As so often happens in Mad Men, history is invoked to throw the characters for a loop, to make their world strange to them and fascinating to us. But to what end? Stylist and occasional cultural critic Simon Doonan once made a similar point about coolness versus meaning in a discussion about contemporary art. One could, he said, chuck 5,000 standard number-two pencils out a window and the yellow spray would certainly look “cool” or “interesting.” But would it actually mean anything? This is the question I find myself asking a few episodes into the sixth season of Mad Men, after years of conversations analyzing the book titles, clever one-liners, and symbolic props that fill each episode.
Mad Men wouldn’t be such a compelling show if it was just a series of empty gestures. Or would it? It has a forward-moving narrative, but only nominally. In fact, the “huge” events of the series are rather quotidian: divorce, promotions, second marriages. Many of these plot points have been recycled several times already. The swirling eddies of the show’s narrative river often seem promising, but they usually end up getting left behind without much consequence: Betty’s (January Jones) machinations at the stable, Betty’s cancer, the appearance of Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton). Even the big reveal of Don’s true identity to his bosses, a plot point other shows would build up to for several seasons, ended up being an anticlimactic afterthought. “Who cares?” says Bert (Robert Morse). I’m not the first to point out the blankness at the center of the series. Matt Zoller Seitz at the Vulture and the folks at The New Republic, among many others have made more or less the same observation. The show’s hollowness seems to make a tidy statement about advertising and consumerism during the postwar decades, a point that has also been made by numerous others. However, I think (without ascribing any intentionality to show creator Matthew Weiner), that the blankness of Mad Men also makes a neat statement about the mesmeric experience of watching TV.
In a beginning filmmaking course, I remember the week we began adding sound to our films. “Be careful of music,” our professor said. “It has a mesmerizing effect—people will watch anything when it’s put to music.” He’s right; music makes a lot of boring or pointless or just plain sloppy film go down easy. Case in point: almost the entire music-video genre. Weiner and company have found a formula that does the same thing for a plotless television serial: strings of surreal scenarios delivered with flawless style and impeccable acting. Mad Men’s plot isn’t terribly compelling. Are we that interested in Don’s affair with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini)? The trajectory of Megan’s (Jessica Paré) acting career? Don himself, the center of this universe, is nothing but a phantom. For what do we watch if not for the surprising details, the “clues”? What does it mean for Betty to be goulash-advising in the East Village? For Don to be reading a copy of Dante’s Inferno on the beach—a copy that his mistress gave him? These scenarios and symbols are so heavy-handed, so scrutiny-inviting, so ultimately empty. But they’re seductive.
The pleasure of playing exquisite corpse is precisely the same, random absurdity out of which Mad Men is largely constructed. On the surface, the series appears to be a straightforward, narrative historical drama, but it’s really a spectacle of surreal scenarios that don’t mean much. I don’t mean to say that Mad Men isn’t a good television show; quite the opposite. It just proves that an excellent series requires neither plot nor meaning.