Entertainment·Analysis

Mad Men and the triumph of slow-burn TV

AMC's Emmy-winning drama Mad Men wraps up for good this Sunday. Some call it one of the best television series of all time; others find it utterly boring. One devoted fan praises the show's slow-and-steady approach.

Emmy-winning drama wrapping up after seven critically acclaimed seasons

The Don Draper character, portrayed by Jon Hamm, showcased brooding as an art form. The final episode of 'Mad Men' airs on Sunday. (Carin Baer/AMC/AP)

Some people have called Mad Men one of the most brilliant television shows of all time.

Many others shrug it off as self-indulgent and boring. 

Set in the advertising world of 1960s New York, the Emmy-winning series concludes its illustrious run this Sunday. Over seven seasons, it has earned acclaim for its striking period dress, meticulous art direction, understated performances and languid pace.

I'm an unabashed fan of the show, but I understand why some people find it tedious. Mad Men is muted; it is slow. Some episodes seem to consist of little more than stylish urbanites standing around in their Manhattan digs looking fabulously forlorn.

But one of the best things about this engrossing period drama is that it reminds us that life does not necessarily 
travel at the speed of Snapchat.
Cheers to the end of an era. Pictured here: John Slattery as Roger Sterling, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Kevin Rahm as Ted Chaough. ( Justin Mintz/AMC )

It's notable that the show launched in 2007, the same year as Apple's iPhone. That device — which combined the functionality of a music player, a phone and a web browser — has gone a long way to accelerate our collective attention deficit.

In an era of six-second Vine videos and news coverage condensed into 140-character Twitter posts, Mad Men taught us to decelerate and appreciate a more immersive style of storytelling. Call it slow-burn TV.

Patience rewarded

From the beginning, the tale of Don Draper — the debonair, philandering ad man with the complicated past — has demanded patience from viewers.

For one thing, Don has trouble communicating. In front of potential clients, he has oratorical skills to match Barack Obama's. But with his family, his co-workers and his vast coterie of past and present lovers, Don is startlingly - often maddeningly - short on words.

He's given us a fair share of pithy aphorisms — he once told a woman, "What you call love was invented by guys like me ... to sell nylons" — but Don's default setting is quietly brooding.

To some viewers, this is frustrating; the man seems inscrutable. But more than most shows, Mad Men understands the narrative importance of silence, which can sometimes contain as much existential truth as a Shakespearean soliloquy. 

Why does everybody need to talk about everything?- Don Draper, Season 4

In an Atlantic Monthly interview last year, series creator Matthew Weiner said "those moments of silence are filled with the depth of human experience: In a conversation, you don't know what the person is going to say next. Most of us don't, in dramatic situations."

Or, as Don himself muses in season four, "Why does everybody need to talk about everything?"

In the absence of rapid-fire dialogue, Weiner and his production team invite us to pore over non-verbal clues to better understand Mad Men's emotional landscape — from the passive-aggressive body language between Don and his stroppy teen daughter, Sally, to something as seemingly trivial as the characters' reading material.

For example, in season three, Don's wife, Betty, is seen thumbing through Mary McCarthy's The Group, a 1963 novel whose message of female empowerment would have resonated with an exasperated hausfrau such as Betty.

New Yorker TV columnist Emily Nussbaum has written that Mad Men's biggest strength is "the way it relishes lingering and withholding, pausing and fetishizing, forcing the audience to gaze at endlessly interpretable images." The effect is hypnotic.

Fiery finish? Not likely

In addition to its often stingy banter, Mad Men is largely indifferent to plot.

When you take stock of everything that's happened over seven seasons, the reasonable conclusion is: precious little. Don divorced, remarried and had countless extramarital trysts. Meanwhile, his advertising firm merged with a bigger British agency, broke away and went independent, then merged again. Big whoop.

Weiner and his writers are less interested in jaw-dropping revelations than fixing their full attention on the inner lives of their characters. The social and sexual liberation of the late '60s has upended the status quo in what was very much a man's world. Fading lions such as Don and his mentor, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) are left wondering about their place in this new order, as do independent-minded female colleagues such as Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss).

Perhaps not surprisingly, that psychological depth has not translated into a huge viewership — Mad Men doesn't get the same ratings as Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul, which offer more narrative zip and visceral thrills on a weekly basis. But looking across the TV landscape, it's clear the Mad Men model has influenced other shows, suggesting there is an appetite for this kind of storytelling.
Mad Men's slow-burn pace has been replicated by other shows, such as HBO's True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson, left, and Matthew McConaughey. (Jim Bridges/Associated Press)

You can see that languorous approach in the first season of HBO's True Detective, in which Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson mesmerized viewers with their portrayal of tormented Louisiana police officers revisiting a series of decades-old murders. That attitude also informs Cinemax's The Knick, which tells the story of a daring, cocaine-addicted surgeon (played by Clive Owen) at a hospital in turn-of-the-century New York.

The slow and steady approach also marked the most recent season of Netflix's House of Cards, which focuses less on the spectacle of U.S. party politics and more on the psychological tension between President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his first lady, Claire (Robin Wright). Indeed, many of the most gripping scenes revolve around terse conversations in darkened rooms.

In the build-up to Mad Men's series finale, there has been feverish speculation about how Weiner will choose to end it all. Given his track record, it's unlikely to be a fiery finish.

The conclusion is almost certain to be drawn out, deliberate and heaving with symbolism. For devoted viewers who have spent eight years scrutinizing every weighty silence and devastating glance, the finale will surely linger in the mind like a nagging regret.

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