I’ve seen every episode of The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire, Dexter, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, some of the most polished hour-long television dramas ever. That said, last night’s episode of Mad Men was the best-written scripted hour of television I’ve ever seen.
Those shows all have much in common. Sure, each one has disappointing episodes, but the average episode of those shows doesn’t rely on coincidences or gimmicks, grand speeches or narration that explains everything to the audience (with the obvious exception of Dexter). They don’t use camera or chronology tricks to build tension (again, with the exception of Dexter…maybe Dexter isn’t as good as I think it is).
The characters on those shows feel very real. Although there are people you root for or against, the vast majority of characters are not good or evil–instead, they occupy a grey zone of morality, just like the rest of us. When they talk, the conversations feel real, nuanced and layered. And nothing ever wraps up neatly after an hour.
This particular episode of Mad Men hit home because it was–at least from my perspective–about what it means to be a man. (Come to think of it, last week’s episode was about what it means to be a woman. That didn’t click until just now.) It was about manhood, about what us men do to feel manly and what we do because it’s simply in our nature. Men do some very bad things, and the show doesn’t condone or justify any of them, but those things are there. Those things happen.
I won’t name characters for the sake of spoilers, but there is a pivotal scene that will stick with me for a long time in which one of the men is in a bedroom with a woman with whom he’s about to have sex. The woman is cocky and confident, the man stoic, slowly taking off his tie while the woman coils on the bed and proposes different variations of roleplay. Here’s the dialogue:
Woman (leans back and crosses her legs): Oh, honey. You’ve had such a long day.
Woman (sits, twirls her hair around a finger): Um…it’s my first time. I’m kinda nervous.
Woman (gets on all fours, blonde hair framing her face as she looks him in the eye): You’re my king.
This scene isn’t about sex, not really. We all have some sort of void that we seek to fill. We fill that void in different ways, some healthy, some not so much. Maybe we wish we had more respect, more power, more fame, more empathy, more authority, more adoration. We fill those voids in temporary ways–with food (or lack thereof), sex, clothes/shoes, entertainment, overexercise, you name it–at least until we’re able to come to terms with them and deal with the problem instead of the symptoms.
As you can tell by that paragraph, it goes well beyond what it’s like to be a man. It’s about what it’s like to be human. It’s rare that a TV show can encapsulate our fragile humanity in a single hour (47 minutes, really). Hence my compulsion to write this post.
Also, I should add that in the midst of all the thought-provoking drama, this episode was laugh-out-loud hilarious. Even if you don’t watch Mad Men, you’ll enjoy this episode. Hopefully AMC will rerun it.