Failure and Writing About Mad Men…….


“Good work is irrelevant.” – Donald Draper

I’m here to write about a grand conceptual project transformed into failure. The original idea was to eat a pot cookie (legal and warranted here in the beautiful state of Washington, USA) and watch all of Season 4 of Mad Men in one go, one sitting, from start to finish. I would then record a singular instance of what I saw and transform it into the most genius blog post anyone’s ever read. I’ll get to the idea momentarily. First, some background information.

I started watching Mad Men this year, well after the hype of Mad Men turned itself off. Arguably, Mad Men is, like The Wire and Breaking Bad, a great emblem of our patriarchy. It’s got all the horrible, powerful male figures. It’s got stereotypes more realistic than fantastical. It’s got the grit, the hyperbole, and it represents the world we’re living in. Well, in the case of Mad Men, it’s the world we lived in, some of us, and the world humanity’s lived in. It’s a grand spectacle, of course, but each trope is justified by a granularity of American Naturalism. You can’t help but feel like every piece of the show belongs. This is why I’m glad I started watching it.


I rarely watch television. I only watch “shows” when the “show” is finished. I watched all of Breaking Bad a year after it was over. I think The Wire had been a couple years old when I started watching it (conveniently when I started working in the Philadelphia public schools). Anyway, I’m not a “show” kind of guy. The episodic narrative makes me cringe a bit. I don’t like having to wait. I like my information, my content, my media here and now. I nearly missed Mad Men, but as I said above, it’s a show that stands the test of time. Just last night someone referred to their significant other, who had just let out a remarkably catchy fictional tagline, as Donald Draper. And I got the joke. I usually don’t get television references, for obvious reasons. But Mad Men jokes (or at least points) appear to be thrown around quite commonly in our culture, even though the show’s over, past its 7th season.

I’ve been watching the show for months, taking time, as I’m quite busy, and not doing the binge-watching behavior that I’ve done in the past. It works quite well because the narrative in Mad Men, the story, is actually relatively straightforward and simple. The show’s highest qualities are not about the macro story, but about the minor details: the relationships, the mannerisms, and the work of the individuals in American society. I think that’s probably why people find it interesting. It’s a drama. It might have a tragic or comedic ending overall, with tragic or comedic endings at the end of each episode, but no one waits for the cliffhanger. We wait to see what kind of shit Don or Joan or whoever will pull out of their sleeves.

I don’t have to convince anyone reading this that the show is amazing. It was successful for many reasons, most of them probably rooted in intellectualism. The show’s written well. Very well. Among the best I’ve watched. And yet the major inspiration for this post was that I wanted to respond to the swarms of people I talked to months ago, when I started Season 1, who said: “Season 1 is great, but it goes downhill from there.” Then there were people who were a little more optimistic: “Season 1 is great, but it goes downhill from there. Then it gets good again at the end.” Obviously these people were the wide and narrow subsets of friends I have on Facebook and who knows how qualified they are to talk critically about what’s highly regarded as one of the best shows in American television. Who knows? I wanted to prove them wrong by watching all 7 seasons anyway. Which I’m currently doing.

I was stoned near the end of the 3rd season when the lightbulb went off: I could write about how I was still hooked. I could write about how the show was even better in the 3rd season than it was in the 1st. How the show no longer relied upon the “shock value” of character introductions and instead relied upon the countless layers of context built upon each character through the 2nd season. I could talk about the shots and how each shot was perfect. How, upon watching the camera work, I noticed there were no “bad shots.” And—well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Near the end of Season 3, I say to myself: “How about you write a post, a simple image gallery post, of all the boring shots of the show. How about, Stoned Greg, you cover all the boring elements of the shots. You will thus make even them interesting, and then the show will become even better than the crazy ass awesome shit it already is?!” I said this to myself, stoned and excited (note: I don’t get stoned very often, or excited very often, for that matter), and planned to do just that. I bought the pot cookie from a local recreational marijuana store here in Seattle (I know, I know, I’m bragging), and set aside an entire day for watching the shit out Mad Men. Anyone who knows me knows that everything I’ve described in this paragraph is completely weird and unlike me. I can barely stay focused on a meal I’m eating, let alone a single activity for an entire day.

Fast forward to being dead sober in my basement apartment. I’m there. The pot cookie’s over there (yeah, right there, on the dresser), and I’m not interested in getting fucked up at 9 in the morning. I just want to watch the show. No more conceptualism. No more “find the boring shot in each episode” trick. I realized that I was far more interested in exploring what I could write about. What I could cover over the entire season that would require my best efforts. But what I would not be able to reach because, well, I wasn’t consistent. Instead I just started writing down ideas. What follows is a path of screenshots I took throughout the show’s 4th and middle season that I think most people who have seen the show will find familiar. These will demonstrate a certain degree of failure, and the resulting success that grew out of failure’s stagnant corpse.


Let’s start with the basics. When I started thinking of concepts, I started thinking in patterns. I’m a pattern guy. I fuck up relationships. I become addicted to substances. I read voraciously. I like eggs. These things are reliably repetitive. Well, guess what? Patterns are all over Mad Men, too. These form what literary people call themes: The Plight of the Alcoholic. The Rush of Industry. Shit like that. Anyway, first I thought it might be good to take a screenshot from every episode of someone entering a door. What I find fascinating about the camera work in Mad Men and entering/exiting is that we often see the back of the individual who is moving. What does this say about the characters and the director of photography? Who knows—I didn’t study it long enough to draw conclusions. Moving on . . .


Phones. Just like the doors, Mad Men is filled with phones. I kind of like vintage phones. Rotary phones and touch tone phones that are not connected to cell towers. I like them because they show people rooted in one space. A symbolism of commitment (commitment being something I don’t have, as demonstrated by my scattered thoughts in this post). Frankly, it would be hard to write a post about all the phone use, because there’s just too god damn much. If anything gets annoying to me when it comes to Mad Men, it’s somewhere within how much phone action there is. Fortunately, it’s most likely all over because it was actually all over in reality. I’m a millennial. I barely remember having to remember phone numbers of neighbor kids I wanted to go beat up after school.


Excusing the crooked angle of this shot, which was probably bobbing a little bit, we’ll notice that I had the thought, in my sobriety, to focus on one-on-one conversations. Donald Draper (seen in the above shot), is probably the most incredible character I’ve ever seen talk to others on a one-to-one basis. His level of intensity is simply stunning. Not stunning enough for me to care for more than a thought.


Now we get to the heart of the matter. I can’t comment on the entire series (what with the shocking anti-tobacco going on in Season 4), but booze is probably the biggest symbol of the show. Here we have Peggy (definitely my favorite character, as a practicing feminist) taking a moment to relax with a stiff drink. How many stiff drinks are in the show? You could probably search for “Mad Men drinks consumed” and get a relevant infographic. But, like with the phones, the drinking is just too damn constant to zone in on. How would I ever take only one screenshot per episode to demonstrate the drinking? And Jesus, like I implied a second ago, people have already covered that shit.


Though let’s just take a moment and admire this shot of Roger Sterling. Out of all the suave characters in this truly suave show, Roger’s probably the suavest. He’s a dick (but he isn’t Dick), and he’s pretty absent as far as chauvinists go, but damn, doesn’t he just reek of Esquire and beautiful Man-ness.


No, this is not “Greg Bem thinks about all the ass shots in the show.” This is going back to the original kernel, the seed that is “boring.” It’s actually quite difficult to find boring shots in Mad Men. Even little blips at the beginning and ending of a shot are usually still pretty important and say something about the shot in some important way (notice I just used “important” twice in the same sentence, condemning my respectability forever). Even when you see the boring shit on the screen, as you see above through Roger’s coat, you still want to see what’s going on. You want to deconstruct this show.


It’s important to make note that I took a lot of screenshots while watching the show, and in the case of this one, it demonstrates that many of the shots I took were not really for conceptual writing project ideas. No, this is just a unique shot of an abstract painting sucking characters on in. A matter of escapism we find comforting amidst the world of work, work, work. Oh god. I’m analyzing again. Make it stop.


If you search on Google for “creepy boy Mad Men,” you’ll wind up with Glen. Trust me—I just did it. Glen is another exception to the “consistency” rule. I wanted to actually write a little bit about performance in Mad Men. Who is performing to who else and why? Glen, in multiple instances, is the perfect performance artist. Do you remember what he does to the beautiful house after Don’s left and Betty and her fam are there to fend for it? He and some other punk vandalize it with food. Now, I’m not trying to give anyone ideas, but that’s pretty resourceful. If you want to create some art, use the ingredients you already have!


As I write this, I’m drinking, and I’m finding it hard to tolerate my horrible screen capturing skills. With every beer I throw back, I’m more dissatisfied. But still I go on, failure that I am. I think at several times throughout Season 4, Don, America’s favorite Mad Men character (duh), realizes he’s a failure. It’s mostly derivative of that alcoholism thing that’s all over the Advertising culture. I like Don’s transformations a whole lot, but I’m not here to talk about them. Instead, I’m here to simply show that his failures do appear over time, and at one point while watching the show, I did want to track them. Mostly because the shots of Donald having existential crises are just too fucking beautiful to ignore. I mean, where else do you get images of the loneliness plaguing mid-20th Century America? Nowhere. That’s where.


My muscles are weak but I did want to point out that following drunk people in Mad Men is incredibly thrilling. I think the producers probably got the red flag to showcase too much drunkenness (‘cause, you know, our country is kind of all about being drunk), but in a subtle ironic twist, that censorship makes those few moments of character obliteration even more powerful. I was particularly attracted to Don’s stained shirt in this entire scene. It’s just so despicable with the juxtaposition of the sharpness. We all know Don’s the crispest chip in the bag that is Mad Men, am I right? Which makes that stain utterly appalling. Like Neal Cassady’s bandaged thumb in On the Road, perhaps?


I had to skip a lot of screenshots because I’m not that original, and I repeat myself. That being said, you can email me if you want to see them. With this shot, though, we have a first—what I call the “Group Suggestion.” Throughout the seasons there are numerous instances of characters essentially getting assaulted by ideas through the power of the group. Have enough people stare and smile and you’re going to get some kind of reaction. Clients are remarkably resistant (over and over again) to the shit that’s going on with the group, but employees seem to fall to the group suggestion time and time again, feeling battered and bruised and impressed with orders, control, and dominance. Funny how that works. Reminds me of ants.


Nothing to say here, just another existential crisis. They’re just so good!


This shot represents badass independence, as Joan is kind of the epitome of. Well, she’s not entirely independent. Remember: patriarchy. That’s not going to dissipate until Mad Men 3000 edition. But Joan does her best to work within the system to be her own self, to own it, to own others. She dominates probably 90% of the time. She has her own existential crises as well (don’t all the top 10 characters? At least once?), but she makes it. And I’m empathetic: she is always in her educator role, and that’s a role I typically enjoy fulfilling as well.

Well, I’m at nearly 2,500 words and I have said some things and haven’t said much of anything. I think that’s the point. I’m deeply concerned in failure of goal but success of process. Mad Men has helped me understand that a bit more. But what didn’t I pick up on? Where’s the pattern, the theme, the series of images I didn’t catch? What’s not obvious? What is too obvious? Tell me. I’m genuinely, consistently curious.


Greg Bem is a mad man. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, he's rarely witty enough to come up with a memorable line of poetry, let alone a memorable line of ad copy. You can find him on Twitter if you search hard enough. He's currently continuing his trek through the show described in this post, and probably won't be writing about it, or writing about writing about it.

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