After the fairly ground-shaking events of “Flight 1”—Pete’s Dad dies! We learn the deal with Peggy’s baby! Duck emerges as a full-blown Bad Guy!—I was somewhat surprised to find that “The Benefactor” was basically a standalone with only the tiniest bit of follow-up to the previous episode. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized something: Almost all of Mad Men’s “big” episodes, “Flight 1” included, are basically standalones. This approach is a reversal of the main TV model of the 1990s, and proof of just how much series creator Matthew Weiner learned from working on The Sopranos.
I recently absorbed most of Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon’s collection of critical essays on genre fiction, in addition to rereading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, so I hope you’ll forgive me for getting a bit academic and pin-headed here. Basically, for most of the history of television, dramas were divided into two varieties: Serials (from Peyton Place through Dallas, Dynasty, etc) and series that were basically collections of short stories about the characters (pretty much every crime/medical/science fiction series you can think of). The main similarity is that in both types of series, the characters never really changed.
Much of this has to do with the nature of the short story, the form that has arguably influenced episodic TV drama more than any other. I’m sure readers of this column will be able to come up with other examples (right now, all I’m coming up with are Ernest Hemingway and John Updike), but sequential short stories following a single protagonist are far less common in the realm of “serious” fiction than in the genre world—and genre fiction characters, like those on TV, are far less likely to experience real change.
In the 1980s, Steven Bochco began to combine the two forms of TV drama, but the process that leads us to Mad Men began in the early ’90s with the arrival of Chris Carter’s The X-Files and J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. Both presented themselves (the latter more convincingly than the former) as novels for television, with a defined beginning, middle and ending, during which the characters would experience real change and growth. In the interest of luring in casual viewers along the way, Carter and Straczynski established a dichotomy between “mythology” or “arc” episodes—ones which solved lingering mysteries and advanced the larger plot—and entirely self-contained stories. This template was adopted by a zillion other series over the subsequent years (most notably by Buffy, Angel, Alias, Lost and Battlestar Galactica), and while it resulted in some awfully good TV, this paradigm tended to create a belief among TV fans that self-contained episodes are inherently inferior to continuity-oriented ones (with exceptions: some would argue that as the X-Files mythology spun increasingly out of control, its standalones got better and better).
The Sopranos was a highly serialized show from the beginning, and in some ways became more serialized as it went on (for evidence, look no further than the adventures of Vito Spatafore). But with the fifth episode of Season One, “College”, it became clear that David Chase was trying something new—coming up with a self-contained TV episode that would change the protagonist in ways that would be evident for the series’ entire run. Over the course of The Sopranos’s six seasons, Tony, Uncle Jun, Carmela, Dr. Melfi, Bobby Baccalieri and Johnny Sack (in the final season’s superb “Stage Five”) would all receive such episodes. With each one, The Sopranos became less a crime drama and more a portrait of individuals baffled by a changing world—who in turn added up to a community baffled by a changing world. Like light, which can be both particle and wave depending on your viewpoint, The Sopranos was both a serial and a collection of shared-universe vignettes, albeit perhaps one closer to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology than to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories or any of Updike’s story cycles.
Which, finally, brings us to Mad Men. In his comments on my write-up of “Flight 1,” Matt Seitz praised what Matthew Weiner is doing this season and connected it to The Sopranos, but I don’t think he gave Weiner enough credit for taking the David Chase approach further than Chase himself ever has. The Sopranos launched a golden age in American TV—Deadwood, The Wire, The Shield...you know the drill—but most of Chase’s acolytes have been content to stick with relatively conventional serial narratives (even if shows such as The Shield took the serial in bold new directions by embracing the novel as thoroughly as Chase has the short story). Only Weiner has seen fit to fully embrace Chase’s vision and offer a sort of fractal drama—one that contains conventional continuity, to be sure, but also one where the narrative model is layered rather than strictly linear, and in which it takes quite awhile (unlike with B5 or The X-Files, which wore their complexity as a badge of pride) to realize that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
This has all been a fancy way of saying that Mad Men often feels like a collection of short stories about the characters rather than a conventional TV series. Strip away the Peggy material from last week’s episode and you’re left with a beauty of a short story about Pete, one in which he learns hard lessons that TV characters seldom do. Prune away Betty’s activities this week and what remains is an equally fine (and equally resonant) double-helix story about Don and Harry Crane.
As its thesis, “The Benefactor” argues that artists often wind up with the patrons they deserve: Leonardo and Michelangelo got the de Medicis; a mediocre insult comic like Jimmy winds up with Utz Potato Chips. But beyond the theme lies a deeper question: Are Don and Harry artists? As Don famously told us last season, SC is “home to more failed artists and writers than the Third Reich”, but despite his jokes about a novel in progress—I’ve always taken them as jokes, at least—we’ve seen little evidence of conventional artistic ambition on Don’s part. The artform he specializes in isn’t making the client (or, ultimately, the consumer) feel what he does, nor is it the simple art of the con. To become the advertising whiz that he is—and to transform himself from Dick Whitman into Don Draper—he had to master the art of the managed expectation. Even those who specialize in such unorthodox art forms occasionally have to suck it up and kiss their patron’s ass, and that’s what Don does when he takes Jimmy and Bobbi to dinner with “Mr. and Mrs Utz” (a/k/a the Schillings—it can get confusing since at one point “shilling” is used as a verb).
Who is Don’s patron in this scenario? It’s both Jimmy and the Schillings, to some degree, but ultimately it’s SC itself, and Don clearly thinks he deserves a benefactor who better appreciates his talents—otherwise he wouldn’t be slinking off to French films in the middle of the day (though by doing so, he’s hardly being a slacker—as with reading Frank O’Hara, he’s practicing the art of the managed expectation by attempting to acquire a level of broad cultural awareness that one wouldn’t typically associate with a suit like him).
Really, Jimmy has it easy—to please his patrons, all he has to do is cough up a simple apology (and while Jimmy may use alcohol and misanthropy to justify his behavior, his instructions to the cameraman make it clear he’s enough of a professional to have known what he was doing). Don has to a) sell the Schillings on Jimmy’s sincerity, b) manage Jimmy’s expectations by letting him think that he’s both smarter than Don and has a chance with Betty, and then c) use his masculinity as a literal blunt instrument when Bobbi threatens to use contractual loopholes to exempt her husband from apologizing (Don sliding his fingers into Bobbi may or may not be a basic cable first, but it’s certainly the most sexually explicit scene Mad Men has offered yet). For her part, Betty has to “merely” string Jimmy along while simultaneously keeping the Schillings charmed. At first, Betty seems nonplussed about the dinner, asking what kind of prop she’s supposed to be—a speaking one or a silent one—but in the final scene she’s unexpectedly happy. Like her husband, she’s just paid her freight by sucking up to the people who pay for her lifestyle—and, like Don, she just did so by managing expectations. The episode ends with something we rarely get from Mad Men—a scene in which Don and Betty feel like both a real couple and a real team.
The early scenes at SC dealing with Jimmy’s disastrous commercial shoot don’t say much about the degree to which Don does or doesn’t see himself as an artist, but they do suggest that a hell of a lot of his SC cohorts—including Roger, Duck and even Ken “Published Author” Cosgrove—see advertising purely as a business. Of course, as we learned when Paul took Peggy on a tour of the agency back at the start of Season One, the creative and accounts departments are just tiny slices of SC. The biggest department is media, a purely business department and one which thus far has only been represented by Harry Crane. Harry’s an outsider in more ways than one among the junior execs—he’s the only non-Ivy Leaguer among the lot, and presumably the only Midwesterner. If his department isn’t particularly creative, Harry himself is—last year, he co-concieved (with Pete) the plan to lock JFK out of the TV ad market in Chicago, and this time he proves himself fairly visionary by first attempting to help out his friend at CBS and then urging the creation of a TV department at SC (that they don’t already have one certifies dinosaur status).
But Harry clearly doesn’t have the patron he deserves—if he did, the promotion would have come directly from Bert Cooper instead of being handled by Roger. When Roger offers Harry $225 a week, you just know he’d have given Harry $240 or $250 if he’d come back with a counteroffer instead of meekly ending the negotiations prematurely. Harry’s wife, like Betty, takes pride in her husband sticking up for himself, likewise not knowing the whole story. What they both fail to realize about their husbands (as does Bobbi) is that being an artist—and obtaining the patron an artist deserves—requires as much balls as it does talent; while their spouses may not be entirely lacking in testicular fortitude, they haven’t mastered the knack of summoning it when it’s most needed.
Miscellaneous Notes: Not too much to touch on this time around, though there are some interesting casting notes. I’ve been a big fan of Patrick Fischler ever since his genius back-to-back bit parts in Mulholland Drive and Ghost World, so it was a big treat to see him in the meaty role of a second string Rat Packer obviously based in part on Don Rickles (if you don’t know Fischler from his movie roles, you surely recognize him from his guest spots on everything from Girlfriends and Veronica Mars to Burn Notice and all three CSIs). And while her blond hair was hidden by her riding helmet (and the role, curiously, is not yet on her IMDB page), Betty’s equestrian buddy is played by none other than Denise Crosby, a/k/a Lt. Tasha Yar of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while Mad TV alumnae Christa Flanagan obviously impressed Weiner—otherwise Lois wouldn’t have resurfaced as Don’s secretary before getting fired this week—she had better well turn up elsewhere at SC; if she was fired both in real life as well as on camera, that’d be just too fucking cruel. The return of the Belle Jolie Lipstick executive, too, was a pleasant surprise; I’m sure I can’t be the only fan who ID’d him by his voice before we even got a look at his face.
As to the story about the episode of The Defenders, most of it is true: As the New York Times reported on April 9, 1962, CBS was left high and dry when the series’ three regular sponsors—Brown & Williamson tobacco, Lever Bros. and Kimberly-Clark (the latter two are mentioned by Harry’s friend)—bailed on the abortion-themed episode, which wound up airing as scheduled on April 28, 1962. Since next week’s episode spans most of April, everything lines up with the calendar just about perfectly. According to a 1997 Times article about Showtime’s, er, abortive 1999 revival of The Defenders, the episode was ultimately sponsored by a watch company (unspecified in the article) which bought up all the ad time for pennies on the dollar. Despite the controversy, an article at the Museum of Broadcast Communication says audience response to the episode was 90% positive. The Defenders wound up running until 1965 and was later folded into the same continuity as Boston Legal (and a zillion other series) when David E. Kelley retconned a guest character played by William Shatner into having been a young Denny Crane. My one question: Did Weiner et al leave out clips featuring Robert Reed because there were none that fit, or because they didn’t want viewers to laugh archly upon getting a glimpse of the young Mike Brady?
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.