These “For Your Consideration” ads for Mad Men are perfect. Just perfect.
(I missed the last two episodes of Mad Men while away on vacation, so I’m a little late to writing about this. If you’re further behind me, you may want to stop reading now — that is, if you’re the type of viewer who tries to avoid anything and everything.)
I’ve noticed a lot of people have come to hate the flashbacks on Mad Men. While I never agreed with those critics, I certainly understood their criticism, and imagined myself eventually agreeing with them. In short, they argued that in addition to becoming boring and/or repetitive, Don’s flashbacks were also unfair. We didn’t receive this access to any other character, they argued.
I suppose the main reason I never came around to this side was that I never found such flashbacks boring. I liked the way each season seemed to focus on one particular time in Don’s young life: it was realistic to me that he’d dwell on different moments at different times in his life. This show isn’t Lost, after all. But I certainly couldn’t argue much with the idea that we had unfair access to Don. The best reason I could come up with was, “He’s the main character!” But that’s not a very interesting blog post, and hypocritical coming from someone who tends to think of Peggy and Sally and Pete as Don’s equals in terms of importance to the story Mad Men is telling.
But the concluding episodes of season six were a good reminder of why we have access to Don and no one else: Don’s a liar. Sure, everyone on Mad Men has told a lie at some point (many, really), but no one else is so fundamentally untrustworthy when it comes to the story of his life. Well, except for Bob Benson, but I suspect we all agree that a new character doesn’t enter a story and have the structure re-built to incorporate him. Bob, as we now know, is a part of Pete’s story. We don’t have access to Pete’s memories because we’ve learned we can trust what we hear about Pete’s life story. Viewers don’t need flashbacks when they can trust what they learn from conversation and context.
Don’s flashbacks, then, became not just ways to learn about his past, but ways to learn about his future. Indeed, they literally burst out of him in the final episode, prompting him to punch a minister and tell a true story during an ad pitch to Hershey’s. What’s so exciting about these moments — and the final one, when Don brings his children to his childhood home — is how they reflect both a potential change in character and storytelling. Will season 7 have any flashbacks? I imagine it won’t, at least so far as Don continues down this more honest path he’s struck out on. The character is in control, rendering access to memories necessary or unnecessary.
I think my favorite character on Mad Men this year might be Bob Benson. I admit this is a strange choice, particularly since he’s a new and relatively minor character in a season that is still very much unfolding.
Bob is such a blank slate at times that he exists entirely of the projections cast upon him by Mad Men viewers. Find any Mad Men article with a few hundred comments and you’ll discover someone tossing out theories as drab as Bob being Joan’s white knight to as crazy as Bob being a serial killer trying to find his next victim.
At first, I had assumed Bob was simply Pete Campbell reincarnated (right down to the bright blue suit that Bob sports now and Pete would wear in earlier seasons), but a Pete who managed to hide even broader ambitions behind a friendlier demeanor. Yet Bob had seemed so inexplicably normal and kind over the course of the season that I thought something else was going on — namely, that show creator Matt Weiner was using Bob as a way to teach us something about the way we not just watch television, but jump to conclusions about characters and story lines. We were assuming Bob was a monster because he’s surrounded by people who can, at times and to varying degrees, be monsters themselves.
Bob, though, can’t be pegged down quite so easily. On this Sunday’s episode, we see him at Joan’s apartment as the two prepare for a beach trip. Joan confides some juicy Pete gossip to him, which he promptly uses to help Pete out — recommending a nurse who had brought his father back to health very recently. To top it all off, Bob does his best job convincing Pete not to be sour with Joan for passing along the confidential info.
Nice guy? Perhaps. Go-getter? Probably. But Bob continues to allude all of our grasps, as the very father he brags about to Pete was dead and buried when Bob was being chewed out by Ken Cosgrove just a few weeks earlier.
I’m not particularly interested in wild theories about the skeletons in Bob’s closet. But I did want to write a bit about what’s made him such an interesting character to me. It should come as no surprise, either: what consistently impresses me about Mad Men is the way in which it adds new and interesting characters to a core cast that very well could demand the show’s scarce remaining time on its own.
Devin Faraci wrote a piece today about taking responsibility for time shifted television viewing. Mostly, he’s tired of reading complaints about spoilers across the web. And while I agree with the points he’s making, the article made me interested in another idea entirely: the virtue of spoilers.
I love a good spoiler. As a child, I flipped to the end of books before opening to page one. I would be so excited to read that I simply had to know the ending — it allowed me to savor everything along the way. Obviously, this was a practice that needed to stop as I grew older, if only because flipping to the end of The Great Gatsby did not yield the same payoff as flipping to the end of a Matt Christopher* book.
What bothers me about ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture is the idea that stories are merely information vehicles. They certainly can be structured as such: The Sixth Sense seems like the classic example, and to spoil it is to ruin the only circumstance under which one should watch the film. Lost is another example, although an opposite extreme: to spoil it is to save one from having to watch it. In retrospect, the show is interesting within this conversation because it seemingly decided to become an information vehicle midway through its network run.
During this past season of Mad Men, I ran into situations almost every week that Faraci describes in his piece. I would be on Twitter. I would be recording the show. And I would eventually see tweets about the show as it aired. Most of the time, I would leave Twitter. While I am not crushed to learn spoilers, I also don’t seek them out. Except when I do: one week, I kept reading my timeline and eventually thought I had read too much. Namely, I thought I had learned that Pete Campbell had killed himself in an automobile accident. Now, for you SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER folks, I haven’t spoiled anything — except, well, that Pete Campbell doesn’t die in an automobile accident. (Aside: isn’t that still a spoiler? Can I not even rule out events that DON’T happen?) And Mad Men viewers can probably guess the episode where I read tweets that led me to such a conclusion. But subsequently watching the episode was riveting: I was expecting one thing and found another. While different than my childhood reading, the experience was mostly similar: in entering a story with expectations, I experienced the media in front of me at a heightened level. These are story experiences that I wouldn’t take back.
An even better and direct example from my life: The Sopranos. After its sudden and controversial conclusion, I found it impossible to avoid hearing about it. Despite having never seen an episode of The Sopranos at that point in my life, I knew about the final scene within 12 hours of its airing. It’s a show I had been meaning to watch for some time. My parents had the first season on DVD. I could have borrowed it. I simply never got around to it.
In our current ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture, the typical reaction would have been to complain, and to have even less motivation to watch the show. But I started watching that week. Even moreso than Mad Men, I had flipped to the end of the book, albeit this time without choosing to do so. And what I saw enthralled me. I started watching the show that week. And I didn’t enjoy it any less having known how it would end. If anything, it made me even more appreciative of how it ended. It’s the finest conclusion I’ve ever seen to a television series.
But I can hear the naysayers now: “John, Mad Men and The Sopranos are awesome shows. Of course you still liked them. What about the aforementioned Sixth Sense, for example?” First of all, naysayers, thanks for teeing this up for me. You used the exact example I wanted! And you’re right. Those shows are excellent, and it’s hard to imagine how any spoiler would render them poor or less worthy. But The Sixth Sense is a perfect example for my rule of thumb: a spoiler can’t ruin a good story, but it can ruin a bad one. I loved The Sixth Sense when I saw it as a teenager. But I’ve hated it every time I’ve seen it since. It’s a magic trick, and a good one at that, but anyone can tell a good story by withholding crucial information. Only the best storytellers can keep your attention when they lay everything out in front of you — or when their young readers first flip to the end of the book.
I suppose I would understand those concerned with spoilers if they had better justification for their fear. If, for instance, a hypothetical friend of mine was worried he would have his perception of a show shaped by the reaction to it — this I could understand. But ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture seems only to fear the information itself. These reactions are born of an ugly approach to stories: that we read or watch them because they end, and not because they exist and engage.
I care about this not because I wish to spoil stories — in fact, I hope I’ve gone to great lengths to not spoil any of the shows or books mentioned here — but because I wish to talk about them. And in worrying about spoilers, we try to preclude good conversation — the exact types of discourse where we don’t merely talk about information, but about experience.