Mad Men Carousel: the Complete Critical Companion

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Read 07/05/2020-16/05/2020

Rating 4 stars

Matt Zoller Seitz is a TV and film critic. I have his book The Wes Anderson Collection, which is based on a five part video essay Wes Anderson: The Substance of Style and explores in depth the themes and subtexts of Anderson’s films up to Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a great book and I was happy when Mr Hicks bought me Seitz’s Mad Men Carousel for Xmas 2015.

I’ve watched Mad Men since it was first shown in the UK on BBC4 back in 2008. After the show moved to BSkyB with Series 5, I had to maintain my fix by buying the DVDs as soon as they were released. I even made a Mad Men version of myself on the sadly defunct site madmenyourself.com. It’s up there with the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as being my favourite TV programme.

When it all ended five years ago with part 2 of Series 7, I forgot to buy the DVD. We finally caught up with it on Netflix thanks to lockdown giving us lots of time at home. I didn’t want to read Mad Men Carousel until we were done. I’m glad that I waited. The ending of the show was done well, but I felt sad that it was over and will miss it. Having the book helped extend my immersion in its alternative universe.

The foreword by novelist Megan Abbott frames Mad Men in literary criticism terms. Abbott describes the way the show was “dissected, deconstructed, laid upon the operating table week after week by an ever expanding army of recappers, live tweeters, conspiracy theorists, and web sleuths.” Seitz’s analysis of the show, she says, expands the regular viewer’s understanding of what’s going on, showing us “depths and meaning far beyond our own viewing experience”.

One of the things I loved about Mad Men from the off was how layered it is, how slow its pace, how much there is to think about in each episode. I loved the strength of its characters and how flawed they are. It hooked me in immediately. Abbott refers to a reductive summation of the show as being about how people never change. It surprised me that people could think of it in those terms. They can only be people who have never watched it, because it’s blatantly not true. Mad Men is about the slow distillation of people to the essence of themselves. It takes the full seven series, but each of the core characters changes incrementally over that time. They learn from their experiences. Sometimes they forget to apply their learning to their lives, but they are changed by it. More often, like people in the real world, they are better able to apply their learning to other people’s lives. It has been great coming back to the show after such a long gap and seeing the changes more clearly.

But I shouldn’t be reviewing the show. I should focus on the book. A compendium of columns recapping the show, it consists of reviews he and others wrote, mostly for Seitz’s review blog The House Next Door, as well as a few new pieces written especially for the book.

Seitz sets out how he approaches the review process and sets his recaps in the wider review culture, particularly the change brought about by the move online by the mainstream press and the increase in independent reviewers using blogs and other social media to share their thoughts about the tv they were watching. The introductory essays by both Abbott and Seitz make this book seem more serious than I expected it to be. It’s an examination of pop culture as much as it’s a deep dive into one specific show.

The episode recaps are punctuated by footnotes and endnotes. The former are for readers who might be new to Mad Men and haven’t yet watched every episode. They’re still interesting and useful asides for someone who has watched the entire seven series run, adding in cultural context. The endnotes are definitely aimed at those who have watched everything. They make forward and backward links between seasons and if you’re not careful contain spoilers for how the show ends. I started reading the book when I still had six episodes to watch. I read the endnotes and learnt some things that meant I was looking out for clues as the series rolled to its end.

A word of warning of a different kind about the endnotes – sometimes they don’t relate to the text they’re placed against in the recap, but instead relate to a footnote, sometimes they’re placed too early or too late in the recap text making them confusing, and sometimes they don’t exist, leaving you wondering what point Seitz was going to make. Which is either quite a Mad Men thing to do or bad editing.

It was fascinating to read back over each episode and see what I remembered, what I’d forgotten, what I missed entirely and the things revealed early on that only properly made sense when contextualised by the final series. I was surprised by how much that I recalled as being spread across multiple series was actually concentrated in Series 1. The back and forth in the endnotes stitched the whole together. Watching in ‘real time’, I could only know what had so far been revealed. Looking back over the episodes and seeing how they related to each other showed what a cleverly plotted show Mad Men is.

I also enjoyed having my thoughts about the show, developed as I watched, confirmed by other viewers. I especially appreciated the way the recaps capture and criticise what Seitz calls the writers’ understanding of its female characters “in an academic rather than intuitive way”. There’s respecting the facts of the female experience in the 1960s and there’s not really understanding how women behave. The writers get it mostly right for the main female characters – Joan, Peggy and Sally are among my favourite tv characters – but all supporting women are reduced to little more than ciphers, something that doesn’t happen with the supporting male cast.

The recaps gave me a different perspective on one female character. Betty Draper was my least favourite character watching the show. I found her mean spirited, petulant, a princess. I hadn’t considered her to be frightened. I understood her as someone conditioned to expect a certain type of life. I got that she was disappointed when that life turned out to be something dreamed up, who knows by whom, and fed to generations of women as the ideal female life. Maybe it’s a prejudice on my part, combined with the way she’s played – January Jones layers ice over Betty’s vulnerability as a defence – but what I saw wasn’t a woman lacking in confidence and afraid of failing and losing everything. I saw a haughty princess incapable of unbending to show warmth, a spoiled brat of a woman to compare with the spoiled brats of men in their Madison Avenue offices.

One thing that Seitz seems particularly exercised about throughout the show is the depiction of African American characters and a lack of commitment to portraying the civil rights movement. From the perspective of the time we now live in, where black voices are finally being heard, his discomfort with the reduction of black characters to ciphers makes sense. Seitz includes a conversation he had with a friend about the episode that includes the assassination of Martin Luther King, in place of an episode recap. In it, as in his repeated references to this lack across his recaps, Seitz’s passion seems to blind him to any other reading of the situation than that Matthew Weiner must be racist. White culture is inherently racist, the society we inhabit having been built on the enslavement of people of colour. Seitz’s friend Aaron Aradillas, however, makes a useful observation that Madison Avenue in the 1960s was exponentially more racist than society is today, and by backgrounding African American characters, Weiner is reflecting what the era was like. To white people, black people would have been invisible and interchangeable. In the final series, there’s a clever reflection of this when the two black secretaries, Dawn and Shirley, spend an entire conversation calling each other by the other’s name. Reading the transcript of Seitz’s conversation with his friend, I could see both sides of the argument, but I agreed with Aradillas that Seitz was viewing things from the perspective of 2013 (when the episode aired). Seitz, like many white people who self-identify as ‘woke’, comes across as extremely sensitive about not being thought racist himself. He levies the accusation against Weiner that he’s incapable of imagining the black experience and scared of getting it wrong. That will be true, because it’s not the place of a white writer or showrunner to imagine black experience. The way to get it right is to employ black writers to describe black experience. For whatever reason, Weiner chose not to do that, instead choosing to make Mad Men about the privileged white men who had all the power, and – Peggy and Joan aside – backgrounding everyone who isn’t a privileged white man as objects in those men’s power play.

The issue of how Mad Men handles race relations is the thing that exercises Seitz the most, but he also has other bugbears, such as the decline of lead character Don Draper into an insufferable oaf during Series 5 and 6, and the occasional episode that lacks any significant plot development. Both of these things didn’t bother me. I thought Don’s journey from Alpha Male to reactionary drunk chauvinist was believable and necessary. The pace of the entire show, too, meant that having episodes where nothing much happens but getting to know characters better also felt necessary to me.

At times, the episode reviews offer up nuggets of other people’s analysis of the show, including a video essay that overlays the lawnmower incident in Series 3 Episode 6 onto the Zapruder film footage of the Kennedy assassination to show that the makers of Mad Men had very particular attention to detail. I love the show, but that level of critique is above and beyond.

There’s a helpful timeline at the end of the book. One of the things that my husband and I spent a lot of time pondering was where in the chronological past each series was set. The creators of the timeline, Deborah and Roberta Lipp of the blog Basket of Kisses, acknowledge that sometimes it’s hard to pin down precisely. For much of Series 6, we were convinced the setting was 1972, without any good reason. It just felt like 1972.

I enjoyed reading straight through the book. It was almost like rewatching the show. It allowed me to immerse myself in that world again, which was a useful distraction from the lockdown life we’re currently living. One day, I might watch again from the start and this book will be a useful companion to refer to episode by episode.

I’d recommend Mad Men Carousel to fans of the show, because of the added depth it provides. For people who are about to start watching, I think the experience I had of watching the show as it was being broadcast, while not entirely replicable now in a world of streaming and binge watching, is the best way to experience it the first time. However, if you are in the habit of reading recaps of shows, having Mad Men Carousel by your side would definitely add to the watching experience.

2 thoughts on “Mad Men Carousel: the Complete Critical Companion

  1. Thanks for this extensive review of the book. I’ve often thought that binge-watching the entire Mad Men series now would be an interesting thing to do (that, and Breaking Bad, and The Wire, and . . .). A companion book like this would probably be a good thing to have at hand.

    Like

    1. I wholeheartedly recommend Mad Men. I didn’t get past the second episode of Breaking Bad. My husband watched the entire thing and it’s the favourite programme of one of my nephews. We’re planning to watch The Wire soon.

      Like

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