Mar 29, 2012

Mad Men

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the episode.

As head writer on a show that has been on hiatus for 17 months, Matthew Weiner faced a huge story challenge in the opening two-hour episode. And it’s not yet clear whether he solved it or not.

The vast majority of TV shows have a tremendous advantage when it comes to creating narrative drive, in that they have clear, achievable desire lines. Cops solve crimes, lawyers win cases, doctors cure diseases. Desire, the hero’s goal in the story, is the object of measure in any TV episode.

But one of the main reasons Mad Men catapulted above all other TV shows when it first appeared is that it wasn’t constructed around a lead character with a clearly achievable goal every week.
Don Draper is an ad man, and his goal from one episode to another is never the same. Instead of repeating the same story every week, Mad Men could make every episode totally new, its own work of art, through a complex story weave of multiple characters with ever-changing goals.

This is great for story and character complexity. But it wreaks havoc on narrative drive. Instead of a single, propulsive force, a Mad Men episode is a crosscut among ten or more storylines, all happening simultaneously. The more you crosscut, the more you move sideways, and the less narrative drive you have. Result: you lose huge chunks of your potential audience.

Matthew Weiner has been more than willing to make that bargain in the past. But now he has to write a two-hour opening episode for an audience that hasn’t seen the show for 17 months. He doesn’t have the benefit of a single clear desire line to kick-start the massive story engine. And he is hemmed in by certain events that have happened to his characters at the end of the last season. Don is engaged. Joanie is pregnant, by agency partner Roger Sterling. Don’s ex, Betty, is married to someone else and never comes to the office where all the action is. And the actress who plays Betty is pregnant, so she can’t be in the opening episode anyway.

What all this means is that Weiner essentially has to do two hours of crosscutting to re-establish the various weaknesses and problems of his huge cast. He begins with Don already married to his new wife. That’s probably a good idea, because there wasn’t much he was going to get out of stringing that engagement along. But until now Mad Men was built on the contrast between Don selling the American Dream at work while living an unpleasant, and occasionally nightmarish lie at home. At least in this first episode, Don is relatively happy at home and a no-show at work. So the narrative must be carried by others. The problem is who.

Joanie is stuck at home with her new-born. This highlights the contrast that she and Peggy have always represented on the show of talented women who are held back by their gender. But as long as she is paralyzed at home by her problem, she can’t provide a driving desire for the episode. She finally takes action when she brings her baby to work, and the episode immediately catches fire with two excellent scenes. In the first the various women in the office take turns holding the baby, with Peggy wanting nothing to do with it. Then she has a nice bonding moment with financial partner Lane Pryce, who assures her that the office is falling apart without her. But this comes fairly late in the episode.

Peggy doesn’t have much to do here except feel frustrated coming up with a winning ad for beans. That leaves Pete, a pushy little whiner who is even more obnoxious than usual in this episode. He battles Roger for a bigger office that befits the success he has achieved in bringing clients to a firm that is having serious money problems.

Given the immense challenge Weiner faced in coming up with this first episode, we should probably be amazed that it was as good as it was. Now that he has taken care of all the set-up work for this season, he may be able to take the show in some exciting new directions as Mad Men takes on 1966. But for writers who love the craft, this episode points up lesson #1 in television: it all starts with desire.