Mad Men, Season 5

"Mystery Date" Proves David Simon Wrong About Recaps
Talking television.
April 10 2012 2:52 PM

Mad Men, Season 5

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No matter what David Simon says, recapping Mad Men is worth it.

'The Wire' creator David Simon (L) and 'Mad Men' creator Matthew Weiner (R).
Left: David Simon. Right: Matthew Weiner.

Simon: John W. Ferguson/Getty Images. Weiner: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images.

Patrick, I’m glad you brought up The Wire, because it’s been on my mind. Last week, its creator, David Simon, gave a typically prickly interview to the New York Times, in which he seemed to criticize viewers who only discovered his show once it was off the air. He also expressed concern about the rise of episode-by-episode television coverage, of the type we practice here in the TV Club:

The number of people blogging television online—it’s ridiculous. They don’t know what we’re building. And by the way, that’s true for the people who say we’re great. They don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end.

Simon later conducted a second interview, with recapper extraordinaire Alan Sepinwall, to clarify his comments about The Wire’s belated fans, whom he apparently hadn’t meant to disparage. But he held the line when it came to weekly television coverage, which he likened to a book reviewer critiquing a novel having only read the first few chapters. He did allow that at least some TV bloggers are aware of the limitations of the form: “Some people understand they're covering early chapters, and there's a certain caution,” he said.

Obviously, as someone who participates in weekly close analysis of a television show, I disagree with Simon about the value of such an exercise. It seems to me there’s no higher compliment you can pay to a great series than to lavish attention on its every plot twist and costuming choice. And the critics who do weekly coverage best—Sepinwall, James Poniewozik at Time, Emily Nussbaum back when she was writing about Lost for Vulture—generally write about shows they’re deeply invested in and plan to stick with for the long haul. They’re not picking up a book only to discard it after a few chapters.

But I was grateful to Simon for the reminder that it’s important, when picking apart episodes as we do here in the TV Club, to keep in mind that we’re commenting on a work in progress. When I’ve gone back and rewatched past seasons of Mad Men on DVD, I’ve had the experience of appreciating episodes in a new way, seeing something I hadn’t before because I hadn’t yet understood the arc the series was tracing across the whole season. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of an episode and to forget that what feels like a wrong note in the moment can later prove to have significance down the line. Particularly when watching a series like Mad Men, in which details frequently take on new importance as the story goes on. As you note, Patrick, it was delicious in this week’s episode that it was an accordion player who arrived at that unhappy table at the Italian restaurant. The three of us had plenty of thoughts about Joan’s accordion playing back in Season 3—it seemed, then, a symbol of her resigned commitment to Greg. We of course had no idea that the instrument would return two seasons later, at the moment when her commitment to her husband was beginning to unravel.

So I found Simon’s thoughts a useful reminder that this story we’re commenting on each week is still unfolding. But in thinking more about this most recent episode of Mad Men, it also occurred to me that this series is something of a special case when it comes to the recapping debate. Novelistic sweep has become a sine qua non of great cable drama, thanks in no small part to The Wire, and Mad Men is certainly a compelling longform narrative, of an ad man whose biggest lies are the ones he tells about (and to) himself. But Mad Men episodes also frequently operate like nearly self-contained short stories, with their own themes, motifs, and internal rhymes.

Take “Mystery Date.” As you guys have astutely noted in your posts this week, the theme of this episode was the connection between sex and violence, and each of the plot lines took up this theme in a different, yet connected way: Don attempts to kill off his libido, in the form of a discarded lover come back for more; Ginsberg’s pitch to Baxter is inflected with the frisson of violence he picks up on when Joyce shows off her contact sheet of Speck photos; Sally and Pauline achieve detente over a Seconal taken to help them escape their Speck-induced fears. Julia, you pointed out a related motif: hiding under the bed, a detail that migrates from the news accounts of the Speck murders into the episode’s narrative. A reader noticed another: Recurring scenes of characters opening doors (Don for Libido Lady, Joan for her husband/not-baby-daddy, Peggy for a furtive Dawn), playing off the newfound fear about who might be lurking on the other side of a closed door in the wake of the Speck news. And all those heels! A symbol of female sexuality, but also vulnerability, as Richard Posner has been saying for years.

With such a careful narrative structure, and so many rich, resonant details, an episode like this one practically cries out for close analysis. I didn’t much enjoy “Mystery Date,” but I admired its architecture, and I appreciate it that much more having read your dissections of its themes. One of the great pleasures of Mad Men is that it supports such close readings—it would seem a shame, it seems to me, to wait till the end of the series’ run to debate the deeper meaning behind every sexy slingback.

Until next week, pass me a Schaefer,
John

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.