For those of you who don't follow Mad Men : don't trouble reading. We make no apologies for writing about a mere television series, here - this one bears writing about every bit as much as any other in production - or, probably, any current cinematic release.
For those who aren't up-to-date on Mad Men, but plan to be, please don't read -- ah... "Spoiler Event," "Red Alert," what have you. Do Not Read Further.
This recent Sunday's episode of the critically praised, award-besotted, under-watched, reportedly under-funded basic-cable television drama Mad Men, shown in the U.S on the AMC channel, concerning, for the most part, the American national advertising business circa 1960-onwards, was, indeed, a heart breaker -- as was, to some extent, the previous episode, where Christina Hendricks' Joan Harris (or is she Joan Holloway? One gets easily confused looking at her) was made into a literal prostitute for the agency, and ad writer Peggy Olson (apparently) left the fictional advertising firm the series concerns itself with for good to go to another agency.
Which, we're now guessing, she hasn't, really. Not permanently, anyhow.
In fact, our own prediction, without having read other blogs or sites concerning Mad Men fandom's predictions, mind you, is that she'll return next episode, with honors - that is, being made a partner of the company. Or, at least, she'll get an offer to do so. A real cliff-hanger, perhaps, although a far more cheerful one than the hanging we saw last episode.
This is because the character of Peggy Olson, played for these five seasons with such terrific comic and dramatic awareness by Elisabeth Moss, is an integral part of the program, of course -- every bit as much so as Jon Hamm's Don Draper, himself.
Without her, and considering how doltishly nasty the Draper character has been this entire season (and, as ever, very well-performed by Hamm), what would be left of the show without Peggy would be… well, it would just spoil the thing.
There's no one to replace her. Bringing in a lower -paid actor to fill Peggy's role in the firm in order to give an experienced female voice to what the fictional firm is involved in (but with very real-life clients and brand-names), would be akin to the t.v. version of M*A*S*H slowly bringing in that second string of performers to keep the program going and going and going - in which case, Mad Men in particular would become a greatly diminished effort.
(The additions and expansions of roles in cast this season don't yet feel like this "second-string in a t.v. series" theory we're expounding, here, incidentally. )
And, of course, the small, fictional ad agency can't really exist without at least one woman helping to write campaigns. Maybe Joanie could step into that role, but it would be a reach for her to be alone against the rest of them. They need another woman besides Joanie, and, if they bring back Don's second wife Megan (Jessica Pare) into the agency, it would cheapen everything the character's been saying about her acting career. And she will, probably, succeed on some level in her aspirations.
Bringing in that second woman (one who isn't a secretary) at the agency, itself, would, indeed, if it is not Peggy, make the series look like any other "workplace environment" television series that wants to simply continue until it loses all steam.
Mad Men has always shown superior to, to reuse an example, the t.v. version of M*A*S*H, or just about any U.S. television series yet made with dramatic aspirations that are largely about "the workplace" (don't worry, the M*A*S*H series made lots of money and doesn't need accolades - however : do be sure to see the movie version, if you haven't,"Before You Die"…). The closest to this, one should think, if we don't count the first few very compelling seasons of The West Wing, would have been the better Norman Lear produced efforts of the 1970s, and that is saying quite a lot. Those were comedies, but they very often packed a punch, a meaningful shock.
This last Sunday's episode, which we won't spoil, here, was far too heart-breaking -- wrenching, even -- for Mad Men now to ever be regarded as just another good series. If Mad Men were as comparably popular as, say, the night-time soap opera Dallas was in the 1980s, last Sunday's episode would have been immediately hailed as television history. The dialogue, alone, this recent episode, was as sharp as it's ever been - but this series, as all good dramatic efforts usually are, is superior in very large part due to the ensemble - we need to remember that Mad Men's much-awarded writers aren't being celebrated for writing a novel. If Mad Men were a novel, it would then have a different criteria. Sorry.
That being said: the shot in the recent episode where the guys looked through the upper inter-office window near the ceiling (the same type of window through which Peggy once spied on one of Don's scenes with a very angry secretary) was absolutely brilliant "call-back" scripting, a reworking of a visual motif that one hardly ever sees so subtly done even in most cinema.
Television made in America for an ongoing, year-to-year series has never really come up to this level, and it doesn't really matter where one points.
Here's an assertion, for you, before we start complaining about what hasn't rung true in Season 5: to get to a comparable level of artistic ambition in a dramatic series produced initially for U.S. television, so far, one would have to start comparing Mad Men to something like Roots, or the mini-series version of the first two Godfather films Francis Coppola sold to one of the big networks in the early 1980s. Mad Men is often as compelling - made more so by a decided lack of things exploding, or people being routinely murdered and shot at.
(part two coming up)