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‘Mad Men’ is a Beautiful Slow Burn

The show’s attention to detail and complex characters make for a unique binge-watching experience.
Binge Header Mad Men
By  · Published on March 29th, 2020

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Binge Stats Mad MenUpon first glance, Mad Men does not seem like ideal binge-watch programming. A slow-moving prestige drama focused on heavy themes such as adultery, sexism, violence, and existential dread explored through the lens of a New York advertising firm throughout the 1960s, Mad Men is not necessarily fun viewing, but its astonishingly consistent quality and riveting storylines make for a rewarding binge-watching experience.

Mad Men is a unique show to binge-watch because of its slow burn pace, spending most of its time subtly laying the groundwork for impending personal disasters and focusing on small details with big meanings. Each season is filled with personal, romantic, and business-related tensions that simmer until they suddenly boil over, providing a cathartic if not catastrophic emotional release, whether it is the discovery of longtime infidelity or the loss of a huge advertising account such as Lucky Strike.

The driving force behind these conflicts is Mad Men‘s characters, each of whom spends the series on their own personal journey rife with pain, confusion, occasional triumph, and a lot of cigarettes. Television is a medium well-suited to trace the inner workings of characters as they grow and change over time, and Mad Men takes a slow and subtle approach to revealing who the characters are and what their relationships are to each other, focusing more on the importance of subtle gestures such as facial expressions and tone of voice rather than verbal declarations of feelings.

Jon Hamm weaves a lifetime of uncertainty, self-loathing, and compulsive behavior into his portrayal of Don Draper, the mysterious ad executive with a painful past. Hamm does a brilliant job portraying Don’s various failed attempts at finding happiness, stability, and self-acceptance. Every time Don seems to be in a good place — quitting cigarettes, swimming daily, building a strong relationship with a woman such as Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) or Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré) — his demons catch up with him, pulling him back to his worst impulses. It is simultaneously riveting, tragic, and infuriating to watch Don repeat the same patterns throughout the series, neglecting his work and his children and succumbing to his alcoholism and compulsion to seduce every woman he comes in contact with.

The show’s second emotional core, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the secretary turned copywriter turned creative director, is at times bright and ambitious, and at other times just as mean and cynical as Don. Don spends the series plagued by his lack of a stable identity, and Peggy stands as his foil and sometimes counterpart as she awkwardly grows into who she knows she is, a smart, sophisticated, at times ruthless businesswoman. Don and Peggy’s tempestuous relationship anchors the show, as they each understand things about each other that no one else does. The gendered power imbalance within their mentor/mentee relationship creates friction that sometimes leads to screaming matches, yet their deep love and respect for each other keep their relationship grounded.

Beyond Don and Peggy, the show does an excellent job developing its characters and portraying their struggles and triumphs as they change and grow older, wiser, and more confident. Betty (January Jones) goes from being an anxious, shy housewife to being a resentful ice queen after she divorces Don, and later in the series, she embraces her own intelligence and capability by going back to university. Sally (Kiernan Shipka) literally passes through childhood and adolescence on screen, starting off as a little troublemaker, smoking her mother’s cigarettes and cutting her own hair, and finishing the series as an incredibly mature if not jaded young woman, bravely accepting that she will have to take care of her siblings in the event of her mother’s death.

Mad Men never shies away from the fact that most people are damaged in ways that will never really go away, but it offers the consolation that it is still possible to find forgiveness and self-acceptance in spite of our psychic traumas. The point that Mad Men makes so beautifully is that it takes time to reach this state of acceptance and that the path to get there is rarely linear. By the end of the series, characters such as Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) have all matured enough to accept that their lives may not have turned out how they thought they would, but that there are always things to be grateful for and little joys to focus on.

Mad Men‘s binge-worthy appeal also lies in its subtle yet powerful attention to detail. There is not a single weak season of Mad Men, and this consistency can be attributed to its perfectly selected cast as well as the intelligent and detail-oriented creative forces behind the scenes, including production designers, cinematographers, writers, producers, directors, and of course its creator Matthew Weiner. Watching the show’s producers consistently keep up with the cultural, social, and political changes and trends of each year of the 1960s is one of the most compelling reasons to watch Mad Men all at once.

From its warm, golden cinematography that evokes 35mm film to the tailored suits and dresses its characters wear, Mad Men is an audiovisual feast of 1960s fashion, music, interior design, and advertising. Characters read Rosemary’s Baby and go see Planet of the Apes in theaters, watch news reports of JFK’s assassination and Marilyn Monroe’s death, spend hours in front of their typewriters, smoke cigarettes indoors, and listen to records such as The Beatles’ Revolver.

The show favors storylines that take time to unfold over fast-paced action, so that when something dramatic happens, it is truly unforgettable, such as Sally walking in on Don having sex with neighbor Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardinelli), Don’s secretary Lois (Crista Flanagan) running over a man’s foot with a lawnmower, or Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) tragic discovery of Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) dead body in his office.

Mad Men reserves these shocking moments for storylines that have been slowly building over time, thus emphasizing their significance and imbuing the show with a sustained air of suspense. Later seasons are plagued by the sounds of distant sirens, increasing the feeling that violence is always lurking just outside the frame, a feeling heightened further by episodes such as season five’s “Mystery Date,” in which characters panic over the Richard Speck murders and Don has a murderous fever dream. It is nearly impossible to stop watching a show where it always feels like something catastrophic is about to happen, a tone that echoes the collective experience of American society throughout the politically and culturally fraught 1960s that the show depicts.

While Mad Men‘s slow-burn pace requires a degree of patience, its psychologically complex characters, rich and compelling storylines, and beautifully crafted facsimile of life in 1960s New York make it a uniquely rewarding binge-watching experience. Pour yourself a scotch on the rocks, put on your best suit and settle in with Sterling Cooper & Partners for a tumultuous decade-long journey.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.