“TV can be every bit as complex a medium as any novel…”

An interview with Alissa Wilkinson

“Lady Lazarus” | Season 5, Episode 8 | AMC

Chad Perman (BW/DR): So, Alissa, how did you first come to Mad Men? Were you there at the beginning, or did you jump in later?

Alissa Wilkinson: Well, I started watching the first season right after the fifth season started airing—which was after that 17-month long hiatus. (I am very glad I didn’t have to live through that.) The only reason I hadn’t watched the show up to that point was that I simply wasn’t watching much TV. I didn’t grow up watching anything but PBS, and in my adult life I’ve never had a TV that was hooked up to any kind of broadcast or cable service. The first few shows I watched on DVD were Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, and even then we were only just approaching TV’s so-called Golden Age.

And to add to that, Mad Men, I’d been told, “glorified” Don Draper’s devil-may-care lifestyle, and I just didn’t have the patience to watch something like that. It was only once I finally bit the bullet and decided to see what all the fuss was about that I realized how wrongheaded that characterization was.

Do you remember some of your initial thoughts when you first started watching the show?

The first thing I noticed was that somebody was madly in love with Edward Hopper, since every single one of the episodes seemed to end with something that ripped off the mid-century painter famous for portraying modernity’s alienation. That tipped me off to the fact that the show was more than just a glossy exterior and a lot of bourbon. Then I started paying attention to the writing, the way people talked, the way themes and symbols got strung throughout the show on an almost subconscious level — and I fell deeply in love. I caught up with it in real time by the time the sixth season started, and have realized since then that this is a show that ought not be binge-watched. That tends to diminish its deeply moral sense.

I absolutely agree – if you binge watch Mad Men, you’re doing it wrong. I’m convinced you need at least three days after each episode just to fully process and digest what you’ve seen. It’s that richness you were talking about, there’s so much going on in each episode, on so many different levels. It needs a bit of distance or space to really absorb, some room to float around in your subconscious for a bit. I’m curious about you mentioning its “deeply moral sense”, though. What do you mean by that exactly? Many folks would argue the show has no underlying morality, that it’s simply “bad people behaving badly”.

Well, even “bad people behaving badly” is a moral judgement; they live in a world in which they are bad people, and they’re always getting judged for it by someone, even if that someone is us, the viewers. The thing is this: we are all bad people, on one level or another. Some of us are more obvious about it, just as some characters on the show aren’t quite as obviously bad as others. Even the children are kind of the worst at times.

But that’s a big part of the show’s moral sense: it refuses to subdivide its world into heroes and villains, nor is anyone’s behavior predictable because of that. I suppose on the real planet there may be people who are pretty much always awful and pretty much always good, but most everyone I know, including me, is capable of both.

Definitely. And Mad Men has always been so great at depicting that, which at times I’m sure made it very frustrating for some viewers – it really challenges us to accept people as people, with all that entails, good, bad, and in between. We are many things, but rarely consistent! But do you think that desire for a defined good character/bad character dichotomy gets at something larger in terms of what we seem to seek, on some really basic level, from the stories we consume? Or is it just as simple as the idea that being able to judge people often allows us to feel better about ourselves?

I think humans like clarity, and being able to put people into good and bad categories is part of that—the classic “us” and “them” dichotomy. It’s much harder to deal with complicated people who do good things and also do bad things. It requires a lot of work. In my religious tradition we spend a great deal of time both affirming that all people are rotten to the core and that change is possible, and we read stories about the patriarchs and “heroes,” all of whom have fatal flaws. Greek mythology is similar in this way.

It may be that one reason we seek this in stories, in particular, is that we like to “identify” with characters in stories. We like to find the one who we feel like we’re like, and root for that person. It’s jarring when a character you like does a thing you can recognize as bad. (This was one of the singular genius moves in Battlestar Galactica, by the way.) But I think it’s also a key part of moral development, because it reminds us that even we are capable of those same things.

Is there a “quintessential Mad Men episode” for you?

AW: I have watched “Lady Lazarus,” the show’s 60th episode (season 5, episode 8) a few times, and I think it’s the one that captures most of what I love about the show in a nutshell. I think it may even be where Act III of the show begins (if we look at the whole show as one long narrative arc). Pete drives Beth home and falls hard for her. Megan tells Don she wants to start acting and quits her job at the agency. Don is confronted with the elevator shaft, and later, after he complains that he doesn’t know much about youth culture (with which he seems increasingly out of touch over the remainder of the show), she brings him Revolver.

What sticks in my mind is the absolute gut-drop feeling I get when Don settles back in his chair with a tumbler of whiskey and starts listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which cost the show a quarter of a million dollars to use, so clearly it was pretty important). If you look at the lyrics of the song—and now that the finale has aired—it actually seems like it prefigures the ending. It’s also just so ominous. Things have been going well for Don to this point, but it all goes to hell soon after.

Indeed it does. So, what about the various relationships on the show…do you have a favorite?

Don and Peggy. Two of my favorite episodes are the ones where he helps her move on after the baby, and “The Suitcase,” when he makes her work through the night and they wind up growing closer. What I love about the two of them—now that the show has concluded—is first, that their relationship was completely unpredictable. No conventional TV show would have taken this route. TV loves to introduce characters like them along with a boatload of sexual tension (I’m thinking now of Cheers, which I’m watching off and on) and then let them get together and break up and get together and break up till you want to stick a fork in your eye.

Instead, we got a relationship that morphed from boss/secretary to mentor/protegee to friends/frenemies, and sometimes to competitors. I was convinced that Peggy was going to end up with Don’s job (and am not convinced that she hasn’t). I love that they occasionally talk about why they didn’t take the usual TV route, as if everyone around them has been watching the shows (remember, Peggy’s mom thinks Don was the father of her child; nearly everyone in the office things they slept together at some point). Peggy has not-stellar taste in men, but she had the good sense to never get involved with Don, and he was never into the idea either.

But interestingly, they are far more involved with one another than they ever could be otherwise: now they are confessee/confessor, and I think in the future they will never lose touch with one another, no matter what actually happened after the lights went down. If Peggy gets married, Don will be there. They are connected, and neither of them could have become who they are without the other.

Yeah, I can’t imagine a future in which Don and Peggy aren’t connected in some way.Mad Men is certainly their story—individually and together—through and through. I don’t think it’s an accident that the series begins on Peggy’s first day at the office. What did you make of the show’s other main relationship/parallel over the years, Joan’s journey vs. Peggy’s?

Peggy and Joan are very alike, though it’s not always fair. They’re truly frenemies. I love the way the show ended that relationship as well: with respect. I think that often women on TV and in film are portrayed as conflicting mainly over men; in this case, they’re conflicting because they each see a little of themselves in each other, and because they both respect and fear each other. It would have made perfect sense for them to be business partners, and they probably would have conquered the world together, but I think it’s possible now that they’ll remain friends and work together occasionally, without having to be BFFs. That feels true to me, and very satisfactory.

As someone deeply invested in the show, which criticisms of Mad Men bother you the most?

Well, the aforementioned “glamorous” criticism just seems really short-sighted to me. But the thing that has driven me (and several of my colleagues who write about the show) totally nuts is the constant attempt to “solve” the plot, as if it was one big mystery. The speculation about Don turning into D.B. Cooper was perhaps the loudest example, but there was a ton of speculation about Megan being Sharon Tate, and a lot more.

That wasn’t really criticism of the show, and I suppose my level of frustration was a little irrational and potentially elitist. After all, that kind of speculation is what TV has taught us to do (especially shows like Lost). I think part of what drove me nuts was that at the same time, I was teaching a course in contemporary American literature, and discovering how tricky it can be to get smart, educated, literate young people to look at a book for more than just whether they like the characters or not. Mad Men pretty closely resembles a novel, or really more a set of interlocking short stories; it’s finely crafted, the beginning prefigures the end, some characters grow and change, some don’t, and the ending leaves some things satisfied and some unsatisfied. It also richly rewards a rewatch.

But because Mad Men has always really been (at least partly) about how people do or don’t find peace and satisfaction, and how we grow up (or don’t), a neat mystery-solving conclusion would have totally been wrong. The form of the show is important to its content. It’s not a mystery show that gives an “answer,” because there’s no one blanket answer to how we mature. Everyone ends up wandering the path at their own speed and encountering their own obstacles. I’m glad it didn’t yield to that, though I’m equally glad that Stan and Peggy are getting what I’ve been rooting for all along.

That seems to really get at the heart of what Mad Men has always been about: that everyone is looking for their own kind of belonging and peace and happiness, and that those paths are never linear ones, for any of us. So many mistakes and meanderings and wrong turns get made on the way to any kind of wisdom or maturity. At the same time, like you said, the nature of storytelling on television has essentially conditioned a modern audience to expect a certain kind of resolution to things, whether it’s a sitcom generating a central conflict it then solves within 24 minutes, or a show like Six Feet Under (whose finale I still rank as one of the very best of all time) giving us that great flash-forward/Sia-scored “this is how everybody eventually dies” montage. But life so rarely gives us that. And Mad Men never promised – or delivered – resolution. It was much more about the cyclical waves we all go through, and that goes on forever. Which is why, as much as I loved the Stan and Peggy scene as a scene, I still thought it felt a bit out of place in the Mad Men universe.

I completely agree with you about the Six Feet Under finale. I think it’s still my favorite TV finale of all time. But I’ll disagree about the Stan and Peggy resolution feeling out of place in the universe as a whole. I mean, the two of them drive each other nuts. That’s not going to change, and presumably they’ll still be working together, and Stan functionally for Peggy. What they have now is what we’ve known all along is there; they’ve only just discovered it, and the show indicates that even good romantic relationships, of which there have been few (Henry and Betty may be about it at this point), are fraught with the same badness and goodness as the people in them. Mad Men does not posit that everyone is headed for misery, or that everyone is equally miserable. It sees misery and happiness as a back-and-forth state for everyone, including Don, and it also posits two different spheres: the personal and the professional. To end with only professional happiness (Joan) or kind of weirdo personal happiness (Roger) would be incomplete. Stan and Peggy give us both.

Fair point. And again, I like Stan and Peggy together – and I thought the phone scene between them, and especially Elizabeth Moss’s performance during it, was just fantastic. It’s one of the best onscreen monologues in years, the way she moves from “What did you say?” to “I think I’m in love with you, too” in the space of that minute. It sparkles in a Billy Wilder type of way, like something out of The Apartment. But the timing of it all seemed so strange, coming literally on the heels of Don’s near-suicidal call to Peggy. Like it was clearly the path they were headed down this season, but that all the sudden they skipped a few steps and rushed to the end and declared their love. But I do think they’ll be good for each other, in all kinds of ways. Speaking of pairings though, what did you think of the Pete/Trudy storyline over the final few episodes? And which character arcs, in general, surprised you in the final season?

Pete and Trudy made me happy. Somehow Peter Campbell, who was pretty much the Worst Person Alive in a whole group of terrible people in the pilot, has turned into a pretty decent guy. He’s tested the ropes and realized that contentment was there at home all along. And Trudy’s definitely been wronged, but I’m pleased to see a great example of careful forgiveness.

The character arc I was most surprised about was the friend break-up between Don and Joan, who always had wonderful rapport until Don’s irresponsibility and bad behavior caused problems for Joan. The two of them are so much alike, in that work means everything to them, and they’re also both probably the most objectively beautiful people in the show, who turn heads just by walking into the room. The episode where they test-drive the cars and then go for a drink is so wonderfully companionable, so I’m sad that is apparently irrevocably over.

So tell us what your process is for recapping each new episode – do you have a certain routine?

I came to recapping very late in the show, though I’d love to go back to the beginning and write through each episode. My preferred method is to watch once for plot, then go back and watch with notebook in hand, tracking with various symbols, themes, and layers. But I can’t always do that, so I try to turn on the critic section of my brain the first time through, too. (It was really hard with the finale, let me tell you.)

And do you have something in mind before you start writing? Some idea what you want to zero in on?

When it comes to writing, I let my intuition take over as I try to find the angle. My recaps aren’t really “recaps” in the literal sense, where I go over what happened in the episode point by point, but I also assume my readers have seen the episode. My job is to open up the episode from a different perspective and make possibilities available to viewers that perhaps weren’t there before. They’re just little mini variations on the themes.

I found last summer when I was recapping another show that Mad Men allows an easy entry into these recaps, because it’s loaded with ideas beneath the surface and tons of very deliberate aesthetic choices (musical cues, shot homages, even the movies that are happening in the background) that reinforce the story of the episode. Not every TV show is this well-written.

Which sort of brings up another question I often find myself thinking about lately, not just with Mad Men in particular, but more in regards to ‘recap culture’ in general. As a critic, a writer, and a professor, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you see recaps fitting into cultural criticism as a whole at this point? And is it strange for you to have to write something so quickly about someone else’s writing/show/art, and then to simultaneously be surrounded by so many other people writing about the same thing with varying degrees of thoughtfulness? There’s really never been anything like this kind of weird immediate overnight pressure on thoughtful critics—in the past one had more time to ponder, immerse, and reflect. But culture doesn’t really allow much for that now—if you wait even a week to opine, you’re basically already out of the loop.

Well, thoughtful movie critics are often forced into writing a review overnight – I have had to do it for years. So it’s not totally out of character for a good number of us. The difference is that what you’re writing about isn’t a self-contained thing, even though it functions that way at times, especially on Mad Men. It requires context and the realization that this isn’t the end of the story. So basically it’s like you’re reviewing a segment of a thing.

Obviously the nature of the recap has totally changed in an era where anyone can DVR or stream the episode whenever they want. There isn’t the same need to catch up on plot points you missed last week because of your kid’s piano recital. So I think the best recaps have changed to being more like good criticism, which tries to put a bigger frame around whatever the review is about and say more than just “this exists.” Good criticism, to my mind, is related to a personal essay in that it draws on the particular critic’s context and experience, as well as their intuition, to expand the episode/movie for the reader.

I don’t think a recap precludes a thoughtful thinkpiece in the future, though. Every critic who writes recaps knows they’ve only skimmed the surface. A great TV show, like any great work of art, almost requires multiple visits to take it in. There’s room for both.

Oh, for sure. So, are there any longer thinkpieces brewing for you currently? Are there even any original thinkpieces left to be written about Mad Men at this point?

Yeah, there are, though you’re right to wonder. I’m thinking right now about religion in the show, and how it does or doesn’t track with religious history in the 1960s. With the exception of a few key scenes and characters (especially Colin Hanks’s character), religion itself isn’t much of a big deal to these characters, but there was so much religious upheaval going on. I’d love to explore that much more thoroughly.

Ok, so we’re getting to the last questions here, the big guns! Can you tell us whatMad Men has meant to you on a personal level? And how you feel about the show being over now?

Mad Men completely convinced me that TV can be every bit as complex a medium as any novel. It also convinced me that there’s little to nothing about the medium that is set; the way people talk on Mad Men, for instance, is much more like real life than I’ve ever seen (characters are never saying what they’re saying). It convinced me that tragedy and comedy can co-exist, and don’t have to be campy or hokey. Other shows have done all these things, but Mad Men was the first one that let me breathe with it. Additionally, the characters and character arcs on Mad Men gave me eerie recollections of people I know and experiences I’ve had, without ever making me feel like “realistic” is the right description for the show. It’s almost hyper-real, both in the spectacle sense and as human drama.

I’m sad it’s over, of course — but also kind of relieved. I’m relieved that it ended as it did. I’m relieved that I can go back and rewatch the whole thing, and of course, I’m relieved that I don’t have to do the recap scramble again on a show where every recap is demanding.

But on a personal level, I’ve been grinning about the ending all day, as if it all had happened to people I love. So maybe, for all my love of the formal brilliance of the show, I’m also just thoroughly connected to these people. They exist, as far as I am concerned.

I love that idea, that they exist. I feel that way too, honestly. In my head, that world absolutely continues on forever. But since the actual show itself had to end, it sounds like you were happy with where it left us? Did you fall into the cynical camp (Don learned nothing, used his “enlightenment” as a way to cash in on hippie culture and make a hugely successful commercial) or the more hopeful one (Don actually grew a bit, realized connection was important, integrated Don/Dick on his California adventure, and returned to NY to make a commercial that reflected a new Don Draper)? Or something else entirely?

I don’t think it’s cynical at all. I also don’t think advertising on the whole is necessarily an evil empire, as some people apparently do. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I do think it’s ironic, and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be one last punchline, in an episode, and a show, loaded with ironic punchlines. (Go read the list of Roger Sterling’s one-liners, and you’ll know what I mean.) The whole season has featured people cashing in on hippie culture, so of course it would happen. The ad really existed and it did that, just as the Apple “think different” ad did for the counterculture about 25 years later.

The point here is that there are two sides to every coin. Are you a bombed-out shell of a man? That’s going to show up in your work. Are you enlightened and at peace? Good, and you can’t help bringing that back to who you are. And Don, in the end, is an ad man. Keep in mind that if we’re meant to believe he created the ad (which did originate at the real McCann), then that means he’s back near his children, who are now presumably motherless, and that he’s working with Peggy as well.

I think you have to have bought into the meta-narrative that making an ad that draws on your experience is an inherently bad thing to do in order to read the ending as cynical. But we’re all selling something, all the time. So I think it’s just an ironic grace note to a great ending.