Wednesday, 15 January 2014
What Mad Men Owes to Lost
Mad Men’s debt to The Sopranos is obvious — besides its compartmentalized, alienated characters and spooky dream sequences, the AMC drama is the brainchild of former Sopranos writer-producer Matthew Weiner. But watching the show’s two-hour season-six premiere (which airs April 7), one wonders if Mad Men owes just as much to Lost. The episode evokes the sci-fi drama’s setting, themes, and atmosphere and is full of the kind-of-sorta-clues and maybe-premonitions that made Lost the first show to take advantage of Internet-age obsessiveness.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is on a client-paid vacation in Hawaii, gathering impressions for an ad campaign for a resort. He’s cut off from the show’s other characters, smoking pot and feasting on roast pig; between the forlorn palm fronds, crashing waves, and meditative close-ups of our hero lost in thought, there’d be a sense of purgatorial isolation even if he weren’t reading Dante’sInferno. The book seems like a perverse choice for a beach read until you get to the end of this clever, at times tricky season opener. In Lost-like style, it strategically withholds key information that would help us make immediate sense of Don’s behavior, which by turns suggests a prisoner, a sleepwalker, and a ghost.
What does it all mean? Where is it all headed? We’ll be asking ourselves these questions throughout Mad Men’s sixth season, and we have Lost to thank for normalizing this level of attention. True, older shows like The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files prompted clue hunts. But after J. J. Abrams’s Lost debuted in 2004 — coinciding with the birth of social media—fan scrutiny underwent a mutation worthy of the series itself. Each new episode was custom-tooled to prompt post-broadcast debates. What was in the hatch? Who were the Others? Were the characters in hell, or perhaps purgatory? Were the echoes of the Bible, Lord of the Flies, and, yes, Paradise Lost meaningful or the writers’ prankish way of sending overthinkers down lit-crit rabbit holes?
As went Lost, so goes Mad Men. If you followed both shows simultaneously when their runs overlapped (2007 to 2010), you may have experienced déjà vu. Fan-driven microscrutiny of every line, reference, and prop on Mad Men was Lost-like, and the show did everything it could to stoke that frenzy. Weiner has even adopted an Abrams-esque anti-spoiler policy, one that bizarrely treats a realistic adult drama as if it were a superhero movie whose bad guy would be revealed at Comic-Con. The letter that accompanied the season-six premiere screener is a meta-masterpiece of mystery creation; Weiner’s request that critics not reveal particular details — such as the year the season begins, the status of Don and Megan’s (Jessica Paré) relationship, and “whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor” — made me think, Few of these questions seem particularly important — but might they prove important later? Or is he asking me to avoid these things so I won’t fixate on other, more spoiler-y things? Writers for Lost frequented chat rooms and blog comments sections, monitoring reactions to manage expectations and outwit plot-guessers. If they and Weiner ever got together — and who’s to say they aren’t playing poker at this very moment? — they’d have plenty to laugh about.
For example, during the Hawaii sequence, Don goes drinking at a hotel bar. He meets a Vietnam-bound, soon-to-be-married soldier, agrees to play “father-in-law” and give away the bride during a wedding the next day, then accidentally swaps lighters with him. Don doesn’t realize until later that he has the soldier’s Zippo; he tries to get rid of it, but it keeps coming back like a bad penny. Is the swap a commentary on Don’s secret history as a deserter who assumed a dead soldier’s identity in Korea? Is it a harbinger of future plotlines?
Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) suicide was foreshadowed here and there last season; just one episode into season six, though, and we’re already up to our necks in death imagery. The premiere opens with a shot staring at the ceiling from the perspective of a man having a heart attack. Don pitches an ad for the resort that seems to imply a suicide — an image of footprints vanishing into the ocean — and everybody senses its morbidity but him. There’s a shot of Megan closing his eyes with her hand, as you would to a person who died. Will this be the season in which Don’s secret life is exposed, his world of manufactured signs and symbols collapses, and he plunges into despair, echoing the falling man in the show’s opening credits? We might or might not learn the answers to those questions, or to others posed by season six; and, this being Mad Men, we’ll be all right with not knowing.
Which brings us to the most important (albeit unintentional) legacy of Lost: Its ending was so profoundly unsatisfying that it prompted viewers to soul-search about why, exactly, they watch television, and whether any show, no matter how carefully constructed, can ever give fans the cathartic closure they want. Mad Men is often about the unsatisfying, unknowable, uncontrollable nature of both life and storytelling — about the impossibility of life taking on the neat contours of fiction, no matter how many faintly literary allusions and how much foreshadowing it may contain. As D. H. Lawrence wrote in Sons and Lovers,“Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as if it was slurred over.” Lost didn’t mean to line up art with life for us, but it did, and Weiner should be grateful, because it made it easier to sell one of Mad Men’s most effective and consistent tropes: the notion that it’s all a big mystery, and at the very end of it, you get heartbreak, and then somebody closes your eyes.
This review originally appeared in the April 8 issue of New York magazine.