For most of its three and a half seasons, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men has teased, promised, and cajoled like a late night ad campaign for a somewhat dubious consumer product. The cast is terrific and generally little-known. The period details draw the eye, especially the costumes. The little news items in the periphery - John Glenn's flight, the Kennedy assassination, civil rights - served as delicious morsels along the trail. The characters are nicely sketched. And the hype has been spectacular. Every smart television viewer of the artistic classes wanted - ached, even - to love Mad Men, to find Sunday evening 60s commonality to be dissected over Monday morning coffee. To find art.
Yet, art they did not find in seasons one and two. What they found was a weekly hour-long infomercial for the viewing life they wished for, a promise that went unfulfilled amidst an often disconnected jumble of period pieces, strange red herrings, and vast uneven writing. I always wanted to like Mad Men, and continued to watch like I'd watch my son playing a video game from over his shoulder - it looked cool and there must be something there.
Last year, Weiner cleared the decks and wrapped up many hanging transitions. Mad Men flashed more dramatic promise. The characters began to come to life. The arc began to make sense.
Then came season four. Pushed to the edges was the blight of the Draper household in suburban Ossining, the whole January Jones retinue of Peyton Place meets the Klingons. It survives now as another painful burr under the saddle of Jon Hamm's more interesting - and more developed - Man from Nowhere character. Also out is Sterling Cooper, the "Big Ad Agency" sold downstream by the capricious, mannered Brits. The old office gang was whittled to a more cohesive core, all the better for focusing on the conflicts and actual character development (as it's known in the trade) in the service of building the new company. Even the interiors, as the fab Ms. Peel notes, are cleaner and more conducive to human drama. Like a lineman wielding a big old Samsonite World Traveler, the pocket is cleared out for the best storylines - Pete's dual ambitions for career and family (what a snarling, sniveling American Everyman!), Roger's descent into drink and late middle-aged irrelevance, and Joan's struggle for respectability and plain old R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
But the center has shifted and the marriage that once held the lead position in Mad Men is gone; to reference Weiner's experience on The Sopranos is too easy, but it's Labor Day and I'm resting so I won't resist the observation that there's a new Carmela in town. Or more accurately, the true Carmela to the Mad Men's Tony - young Peggy Olson is actual moral counterweight to Don Draper. She's the bridge and tunnel kid from a new generation, daring to make the choices and sacrifices necessary to carve a career in Manhattan. And it's evident now that she's Don Draper's partner.
That bond was permanently forged in a long scene that layered Don's grief over Anna's intuited death in California - the "the only person in the world who really knew me" - with Peggy's conflicted loyalty and bubbling ambition. What started as a squabble between a true bastard of a boss and his over-worked assistant, ended with a new understanding of two complex characters. And it was messy and covered in vomit and glory. In previous seasons, Weiner would have been pleased to let the original blow-up hanging, and jump to another early 60s homage to drinks, cigarette smoke, and heavily-trussed bosoms. This time, the writers kept on writing; the scene was too good to let go.
Man Men has hit its stride. Sunday's episode was the first that could have been performed in blacked-out rep theater blankness, devoid of sets, scenery and costumes - just the actors and the dialogue - and connected like Cassius Clay's counter-punching right to Sonny Liston's head. No, last night was no phantom punch; it was the real thing.
In truth, television characters take time. Gleason rolled Ralph Kramden around the boards of his variety hour for four years before gliding into the brilliance of the Golden 39. Don Knotts played a goofy hick for a season or so before becoming the perfect embodiment of the wacky sidekick as Barney Fife. Kramer wasn't Kramer in the early Seinfelds. And to reference at least one drama, Tony Soprano wasn't quite Tony Soprano the first couple of seasons either. He was thinner, less believable - and yeah, less familiar.
Familiarity is crucial for long-term television writing. Despite it's 22-minute half hours, it's really a long-form craft. Good shows run for years, with dozens of hours of dialogue per year. It takes a while for the writers to know the character, to sift the situations and the relationships. To understand what comes next. Then too, the actors inhabit the great television characters in a more gradual fashion. These aren't plays or two-hour movies. These are marathons. Jon Hamm did fine work with what was handed him over the first two seasons of Mad Men, but Don Draper was at best a thin, comic book hero with a convoluted back story. Now Don is older: the series is doing his make-up "older," and his mannerism bespeak the pain of age's realizations. The back story has retreated. Draper fears for his relevance in the groovy mid-60s. And Hamm has fully created the character in the present, not just as a self-contained super star ad man, but as a real person in daily contact with other real people. The compelling and believable Peggy-Don scene in the overnight hours at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would not have been possible at Sterling Cooper.
Familiarity also, quite frankly, inhabits our appreciation of the form. The writers and actors have grown in their knowledge of the characters, to be sure; but they also have a better understanding of what we expect from them. It's not quite the shouted sitcom camaraderie of "Norm!" but our past experiences with, say, Pete inform our appreciation of where is character written, and how Vincent Kartheiser portrays him. Pete has grown beyond the one-dimensional office villain - his Eddie Haskell phase - into a more complicated character of some depth and multiplicity. His past deeds inform our expectations, but the long form of multi-season television writing allows the show to surprise us, to leaven the bad Pete Campbell we thought we knew.
Make no mistake. This Sunday past's episode of Mad Men - the "Suit Case" - is one for television seminars, drama classes, and record books. Cassius Clay's two-minute knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965 was indeed, as James Wolcott said, "one of the pivotal moments in the Sixties, when brash and flash took on brutish glare, and the victor set the tone for the rest of the decade." But many forget that it was actually the second Clay-Liston fight. A year earlier, Clay defeated Liston when the older champ refused to come out of his corner. The '65 rematch was one of the most-hyped matches of the decade, and Clay had already changed his name to Muhammad Ali. There's allegory aplenty in both the brash champion fighting under a new name, and the bitter washed-up veteran from the old school of hard knocks. Don Draper lost a hundred bucks on Sonny Liston, but got an ad campaign idea - at best, a B-minus idea that Peggy only kinda, sorta, if pushed to the wall, liked - from the bout. Finally, in season four of Mad Men, the stakes are set, and the champions are in the ring.