Mad Men is TV like no other

After a 17-month hiatus, this is the longest gap in the broadcast history of Mad Men so far. With the wait finally over and the much anticipated fifth season underway, the hit show will be sequentially catalogued, along with the previous four seasons, on the information superstructures of On-Demand, Netflix, and the like. This would mean little to the story on most other shows (especially a crappy network sitcom where they would waste the time gap on a few jokes and then never mention it again), but it resonates strangely well with Mad Men. The show has had broad leaps in time – well over a year passed at the outsets of seasons two and four.

Creator Matt Weiner signed a deal to keep the show running for six seasons, with an expected seventh season to follow, although in an interview with The Huffington Post, he said he was open to change.

“You know, if I decide at the last minute to do another season, it won’t be for money, but that is the plan,” said Weiner to The Huffington Post. “I mean, to ask somebody on mile 18 of a marathon, ‘Do you want to run 30 miles instead of 26?’ Seven seasons feels like the show, but I’m not being a politician or anything like that. That is what I think the end of the show should be. That’s what the plan is. If I get there, and a I change my mind, everyone can say I’m an idiot, but right now that’s how I feel about it.”

With clashes over the show seemingly in the past, Mad Men seems to be out of the woods.

Now, into the fifth season, we’ve been sucked in yet again. The deft story and dialogue infuses such weight into what’s not shown, the gaps of time in between, and you can feel something that happened a season ago…or perhaps will happen a season in the future.

Mad Men deals with time very interestingly. Not only does it add remarkable weight to moments in a way TV shows rarely can, but ideas of time are used to reveal quite a bit about characters.

Don Draper has an incredibly complex relationship with his past. The first season revealed the violent origins of Don’s illusive identity through war flashbacks. This may seem like a pretty standard dramatic device, but the show only gets more inventive from there. In season three, Don has regular hallucinations about his early life, his life as Dick Whitman with his drunken, abusive father. These Depression-era inputs lucidly capture Don’s wrestling with his past. But he is not the only character bringing the past into the present.

Betty’s father, Gene Hofstadt (known as Grandpa Gene) is shown in season two to be suffering from dementia. He mistakes Betty for his late wife, Betty’s mother. By season three, it has advanced into full-blown Alzheimer’s. He has to move in with Don and a pregnant Betty, where he finds it hard to adjust to an African-American housekeeper and wakes up the house in the middle of the night because he suspects a booze raid and doesn’t realize Prohibition had been repealed 30 years before. I’m not even going to get into the problematic memories and feelings that might be pulsing through Betty’s head during all these events. Needless to say: palpable.

A season four example is Roger’s hostile attitude towards the Japanese businessmen from Honda that re-ignites his WWII memories of navy buddies who were killed at the hands of Japanese forces. He romanticizes his past with them and then, when Joan confronts him professionally about it, he romanticizes his past with her.

But as much as characters are troubled by the past, the future looms with a nearly crushing anxiety. Betty’s psychiatric sessions in season one shows her struggle with contentment in the most commercially comfortable civilization in history. And Don’s complete erasure approach to the past (“This never happened. It will shock you much it never happened.”) can appear in disturbing ways. Like his “inspirational” speech to his employees about how to treat their copy for American Airlines, which had recently suffered a devastating plane crash (it killed Pete Campbell’s father, and Pete still went ahead with courting the account). There is an addiction to the future for people like Don and Pete.

The show is exhausting, existential, and slow. But then again, so is life. The character’s impatience with the coming future and their loaded relationships with personal and cultural histories mirror our own. Wiener has repeatedly claimed Mad Men is not about the 1960s, but us, the people who enjoy this elaborate and poignant recreation of the 1960s. He has done something really clever in placing his show in the turbulent ‘60s. Changing times pressure issues about the past and the future out into conflict, externalizing them into great drama.

Someday soon, the broadcast history of Mad Men will be just that; history. And in the world of Mad Men, which is really the world of us, the past clearly has the ability to return in unexpected and sudden ways.

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