“Mad Men is smarter than the people who think they are smarter than Mad Men…”

An interview with Matt Zoller Seitz

BW/DR: It looks like you took over as the official Mad Men recap writer at Vulture in March 2012, right at the start of Season 5, after Mad Men had been off the air for nearly two years. How did that come about? Was it a show you were passionate about prior to 2012, or simply another assignment?

Matt Zoller Seitz: My history with the show predates that, actually!

I started out doing recaps at The House Next Door, my first blog, which was later absorbed by Slant magazine. One of the writers who worked for me was Andrew Johnston, the TV critic of Time Out New York. Andrew had cancer and had been going through treatments when Mad Men premiered in 2007, so when he told me he wanted to write recaps of every episode because he already knew it was a classic show just from watching the first few episodes, I agreed, but we were both aware that there might be times when he wouldn’t be able to deliver things on time because of his treatment. So we’d talk about each episode before he wrote his recap and I’d take notes on my end just in case I needed to finish it for him.

He was able to recap the first couple of seasons all the way through to the end of season two, at which point he became gravely ill and couldn’t continue. He went three weeks without writing a recap and died in late October, right around the time that season two was finishing up, and I went to AMC and got a DVD of the season finale and took it to him in the hospital, where he watched it on a laptop in his hospital bed. He died two days later, and I wrote recaps of the last three episodes of season two, which you can read here.

I didn’t write any recaps of early seasons beyond that, but I saved my notes, which came in handy when I started recapping Mad Men every week for The New Republic during season four. I was writing for Salon at that time, so this was a side gig. As it turned out, Adam Moss, the publisher of New York magazine, was a fan of the series and read my recaps regularly, and when Emily Nussbaum left her job as TV critic there to take the same job at The New Yorker, he hired me to fill that slot, and that’s when I started recapping the show for Vulture, the magazine’s entertainment blog.

And did that move change your approach to the show at all?

I think I did start to deepen my approach in season five, now that you mention it, because it was a higher-profile gig and by that point recaps had become kind of cliche of TV coverage—everybody was doing them, not just entertainment publications—and I thought it was necessary to differentiate them from other recaps somehow. So I tried to do that by being more thorough in talking about the writing, the filmmaking and music choices, the thematic aspects, the symbolism, and the historical references, to try to make it as much of a complete package as I could, given the constraints I was under, by which I mean, having to write all that stuff overnight, because Matthew Weiner was so paranoid about spoilers that he wouldn’t let anybody see any episodes in advance beyond the pilot. Engagement with Vulture readers also affected my approach. There were a lot of people in that thread who were students of the show just like me, and some of them seemed to know every line and scene by heart! So I tried to keep them in mind as I wrote, and deal with aspects that I knew they’d be irritated by my leaving out.

In that very first Season 5 Ep. 1 recap, you wrote of the main Mad Men characters: “Many of them have either achieved a dream or are on track to achieve it, yet they’re still plagued by feelings of disquiet, deprivation, unworthiness, or a vague sense that there’s something better out there.” It’s remarkable how prescient that line sounds now…it seems like that’s been a theme/feeling Weiner and the writers have been chasing ever since – in fact, this final run of episodes directly asked (via Peggy Lee’s song), “Is That All There Is?”. To what extent do you feel like any of the main characters (Don, Betty, Joan, Peggy, Roger, Pete) have answered that question, or addressed that niggling dissatisfaction, by the final episodes of the series?

I don’t think any of them have answered it, in the sense of overcoming those negative feelings about themselves, but that’s fine. I think a big part of the show’s appeal is how it shows that we’re all that way to some extent, that it’s part of psychology, part of life.

So what would be the “quintessential Mad Men episode” for you—not necessarily your favorite episode, but the one that best encapsulates the show’s style, storytelling, and ethos?

It’s really hard to choose, but I’m deep into a re-watch at the moment, and I just watched “Babylon” from season one, and that would be on my list. It is an important episode for all of the major characters, it hangs all their stories on a nice thematic clothesline without being too overt about it, and the music montage at the end of it is still amazing, really haunting. That’s the moment where, as a first-time viewer, I went from, “Hey, this is a really good show, I’m going to keep watching it” to “This is a classic, I’m in it for the long haul.” I got chills, like the way I got chills watching the end of the fourth episode of season one of Deadwood, where Wild Bill gets killed and the town erupts. Moments like that make you feel a bit lightheaded. You don’t feel like you’re watching a TV show anymore, it’s like it’s happening to you, or right in front of you.

And which character or relationship on the show feels the most important to you, as both a critic and as a person?

I relate most strongly to Don, because of his childhood. I didn’t grow up in a brothel or anything, but there were a lot of aspects that were pretty rough, and in my adult life as well, and I’ve spent the rest of my life dealing with them, without letting them adversely affect the people I love, which is not easy. Also, I didn’t steal a man’s identity in Korea or anything, but I did take my stepfather’s name when I was 16 because I was angry at my father, and though I have a great relationship with my father now, that means there was a point in my life where I basically decided to become somebody else. So I relate to that part as well.

All the characters have some version of that, where they suddenly or gradually become somebody else, but they are still fundamentally the same person in a lot of ways, subject to the same conditioning or debilitating mental aspects that they’ve carried with them since childhood or adolescence. Don’s just the most overt and flamboyant example of that, because his very existence a metaphor for everything the show is most interested in.

Mad Men certainly has its share of detractors, too. Which criticisms of the show tend to irk you the most? And why? One of our staff writers has a friend (“one of the smartest people I know”) who refuses to watch the show because it feels too exclusive to the white experience. Any thoughts on that?

Mad Men has failed in its attempts to bring African-American experience into its world view, and I never bought the excuse that “Well, this is a mostly white world, and things weren’t as casually integrated then, so it’s just being true to the period.” If Mad Men can imagine its way into the life of a guy who grew up in a whorehouse and lost his mother in childbirth and his father to an accident involving a horse, and who stole a man’s identity in Korea, I really don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to write an African-American character who isn’t mainly there to stand in for the African-American experience in relation to the white majority, you know? That’s one area where I’ve been pretty hard on the show.

I think they’ve also had some moments where the treatment of women’s issues and things related to gay people, like Sal and Bob Benson, and Jewish characters like Ginsberg, were too schematic, where it seemed like the need to represent a cultural experience was overwhelming the personality of the characters. Not every word out of a gay person’s mouth at a workplace in the 1960s was a clue to the fact that he was in the closet, you know? Sal was funny and I love him but that always bothered me about that character. So people who complain about that have a point.

The “it’s too on-the-nose with its symbolism” thing and the “it’s condescending to the past” thing always bothered me, though, because Mad Men operates on four or five levels simultaneously, and the immediate references are only the most superficial level. I sometimes feel like Matthew Weiner and his writers put that first level in to draw out the smug people who in another era would brag about not owning a television, or who think that the most basic level of a story is in fact all there is to it, which to me is an example of how disastrously the American educational system, college included, has failed at showing people how to appreciate literary or visual storytelling. At the level of narrative architecture and psychology it’s operating at one of the highest levels, conceptually, of any series in TV history, and people who can’t grasp that are, I think, mainly looking for an opportunity to feel superior to a show that is, in fact, as smart as they think they are, and probably smarter. As I’ve said many times, Mad Men is smarter than the people who think they are smarter thanMad Men.

The show also offers a better, more accurate representation of how the human personality actually works than almost any other drama I can think of, with some exceptions, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, In Treatment, Seinfeld, and The Larry Sanders Show, and now The Americans.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s curious – what is your process for recapping each new episode? Do you have a routine, do you watch each an episode a certain number of times, how do you decide what to zero in on when you write about a particular episode?

I always watch every new episode at least twice. The first time I don’t pause it, I let it run straight through, and I only take very general notes. The second time is like I’m going over the Zapruder film or something. I pause it every time there’s an interesting shot, a notable line of dialogue, or a place where the show seems to be referencing something that happened before, or alluding to popular culture or history from that period in an interesting way. Then I go to my computer and start writing the recap, and I have my handwritten notes next to me, and every time I integrate a note into the recap, I mark through it with a yellow or pink highlighter—yellow is for story notes, pink for character—so that I know I’ve already covered it. This also helps me know when I’m getting to the end, because the amount of highlighted material takes over and I can see that there aren’t too many more things to address.

Then I do one more pass, and in this pass I take the recap out of linear order, and group things by character or theme instead, so that it’s not just a recitation of plot. I think that makes it more interesting to read because you aren’t just having a version of the same experience that you had when you were watching the episode live. It’s more like the non-linear, free-associating remix of that episode, but it’s on the page. That’s why I’m going for at any rate.

And that’s probably what I enjoy most about your recaps each week, though I hate even calling them “recaps”, because they so often seem like so much more. You manage to capture each episode in a way that feels true to the particular episode, while also making room for thematic interpretations, interesting psychological tangents and more random asides. What has being so close to the show for the past several years meant to you on a personal level? How do you feel about it all being over?

I’m sad that it’s over because there has never been a show like it, and probably there will never be another. But even though I have written hundreds of thousands of words about the show, I never resented it for taking so much of my time. In fact, I can honestly say that even when I was up at 4 AM bleary-eyed on Monday morning, sweating over a line or a paragraph, I was always enjoying myself. When something is work but doesn’t feel like work, that’s when you know you have a great job, that you’re where you need to be.