The Most Profound Moment of TV This Week Involved Neither Rape Nor Murder
By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | April 24, 2014 |
By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | April 24, 2014 |
This post includes spoilers for Episode 2 of Mad Men Season 7.
This past Sunday, the most dramatic and exciting episode of television wasn’t filled with shock and horror. It featured no death, or rape, or incest. It wasn’t packed with twists or major reveals. There wasn’t even a single criminal conspiracy to speak of. It was an episode of Mad Men, and, if you ask some people, nothing happened in it and it was pretty boring.
My apologies for what I’m about to say for it’s oh so very “Internet,” but if you watched the first two episodes of the new season of Mad Men and came away from them thinking the show has gotten boring or stale, well… you’re watching it wrong.
Mad Men is not boring. It’s far from boring. It’s maybe the least boring show on TV. That it comes across as boring to many is a reflection of the audience and the state of television, not the series itself. Matthew Weiner can’t help it that the series he created in 2007 now exists in a landscape where the bar for entertainment is being set by shows like Breaking Bad, Scandal and Game of Thrones. Those are all great shows in their own way, of course, but they’re different beasts. Their prime motivator is narrative. Big events need to happen all time, and the audience has come to expect it.
Sadly, these shows, great as they are, also unfairly monopolize the conversation. It’s easy to go nuts and argue for a whole week about a controversial rape scene in Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, but that conversation ends up obscuring potentially more compelling TV drama, whether it be the similarly disturbing but far more complicated sex scene from earlier this season on The Americans, or the smaller and more satisfying character progress on Mad Men.
This week’s Mad Men episode, “A Day’s Work,” had at least three major “events” occur that shifted the narrative of the series as well as our understanding of its characters. Or, as Linda Holmes at NRP tweeted, “That was a great and noteworthy episode of television drama NOT centered around a grisly death!” First, we had Joan getting promoted to Accounts, which is a major step forward for a character that has worked tirelessly and often thanklessly to achieve the barest minimum of respect from her peers. It’s not a murder, but it has no less impact. In fact, it’s the kind of impact that’s seemingly become all too rare in prestige television: it’s a victory.
There was also a similar scene of a black secretary, Dawn, taking over Joan’s post. It’s a job she deserves, and the image of her walking into the office and sitting down at the desk carries with it myriad cultural and historical associations. It’s a loaded scene made all the more powerful by the fact that we’ve grown to care about and admire this woman. It’s another powerful victory for a character in an often-unforgiving world, and a wonderful moment of television.
Finally, there was the plot centered on Don and Sally. For the first time in the series, Don is confronted with the pettiness of his lies, and the sad fact that his need to lie is embarrassing to the people he loves. He’s also confronted with the weight of his behaviour on his daughter, a truly innocent party. This causes him to strip away any last layer of dishonesty between him and his daughter.
“I didn’t behave well. I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.”
“What did you say?”
“I told the truth about myself, but it wasn’t the right time, and so they made me take some time off, and I was ashamed.”
“What was the truth?”
“Nothing you don’t know.”
It’s a quiet moment. A “small” moment. Yet, in that moment is the unraveling of stories, character arcs, development and emotions spanning nine years, and six seasons of television. It’s an incredibly significant reckoning and a signal of change in a character we’ve often viewed as irredeemably stagnant. In effect, that “small” moment is bigger than anything we’ve seen on Game of Thrones this season. It’s huge. And as the episode closes with Sally telling Don, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love,” while the song “This Will Be Our Year” plays us off, there’s something still more profound. It’s another victory in an episode full of them, hinting at a season where this collection of people might finally find peace.
For a show so defined by its characters’ apparently perpetual state of despair, to get three huge victories in a row makes the episode positively monumental. Mad Men has indulged in the occasional death, and it has featured a rape scene, and let’s not forget the shocking lawnmower scene. At its heart, though, what drives Mad Men aren’t major events built for Twitter explosions. Instead, it’s driven by moments of honest human interaction, where every scene is a result of years of character development, and where every line of dialogue has meaning and every incremental step forward is hard-fought and deeply deserved. Sure, there’s no Red Wedding, but a show so rich in even the littlest moments is easily the most exciting of all.