As an ardent fan of Mad Men I was delighted to revisit the first ever episode with a friend who has finally decided to see what all the fuss is about. I giggled all the way through, knowing the full weight of every minor incident. He looked nonplussed, because nothing much seems to happen.
I recently relayed this story to Jared Harris, who plays accountant Lane Pryce. “Exactly! It’s all in the subtext. I was explaining the same thing to someone who only just started watching it this season!”
He went on to describe a scene in series five where Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is left holding a baby, creating an uncomfortable silence when colleague Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) steps into the room.
“Now, if you haven’t been watching the show from season one,” he says, “you don’t know what that little, ten-second, non-verbal scene is all about. It goes back to season one and the fact that she had his baby and gave it up and he didn’t know…until the end of season two. That’s why Matt is such a great writer, because he doesn’t tell you what you’re watching.
“On another show, with different pressure from the studio, they’d want all that written in there to remind viewers – they’d say there needs to be some lines in here to explain what isn’t being said. Matt’s position is, ‘No, they wouldn’t say anything because they’re not that type of people.’
“That’s why, I think, people find the show fascinating, because there’s so much you read into it and all that stuff is there on purpose. He’s totally aware of all of it.”
Harris also credits the producers at AMC: “I think on cable television the approach is that they’re trying to attract an older audience, people who’ve seen it all before and want something else. And that’s exciting for writers, too – they’re being allowed to write for an adult audience. Movies now aren’t written for adults, they’re geared towards teenage boys. It’s all retreads and reboots.”
But giving the audience more work inevitably means that many viewers are put off, despite the promise of greater rewards. Viewing figures from Sky Atlantic show that over half a million people tuned in to the first episode of season two of Game of Thrones, as opposed to only 98,000 who made a date with the opening episode of Mad Men’s season five.
Harris makes the point that longevity isn’t always determined by opening figures with reference to another cable drama: “I didn’t watch The Wire when that was on. I only tuned in during the last season, but I had to go back to the beginning. Christ, what an amazing show. An absolutely stunning piece of work and you can imagine people will keep coming back to it years from now.”
Of course, the technology is now in place to allow viewers to dip into the television archives, so there really is no excuse. Still, today I was alerted to a new Mad Men blog, designed to fill in the gaps for those “caught up in the current hype…who want to start watching from season five”. The editor himself admits this is “obviously ill-advised.”
That’s because real Mad Men fans know the thrills are in the subtext and it gets better with age, because creator Matt Weiner is now playing with our expectations, reacting against everything we think we know. But if you don’t start from the beginning, you don’t know anything…