Greg Olear suspects Mad Men may be ready to “jump the shark” . . . and he thinks he knows the shark’s name: Megan.
On September 20, 1977, during the premiere of the fifth season of the wildly popular show Happy Days, Fonzie, dressed as a greaser from the waist up and a surfer from the waist down, takes up water skis and, channeling his inner Evel Knievel, jumps over a shark. After this stunt, the show was never the same; the Fonz on water skis was just too ridiculous an image to shake. Twenty years after that fateful episode, Jon Hein coined the phrase “jumping the shark” to indicate the moment in a TV series when it begins its slow and ineluctable decline (fans of Downton Abbey know it by its British expression, “Matthew crashing the car”).
I spent all of S5 harboring a sneaking suspicion that Mad Men had jumped the shark. Not only that, I even knew the name of the shark: Megan. While it is perfectly feasible that Don would marry her, the truth is that I have zero interest in the character, and no amount of zou bisou bisou is going to change my mind.
Nor am I the only one who finds the recent seasons—to use my wife’s phrase, when discussing the arrestingly silly tableau of Betty Draper’s neck rolls—shark-jumpy. “Mad Men is still my favorite show,” a friend of mine wrote me this week, “but do you agree it has lost magical feel it often had during the first three seasons?” There’s been a dearth of “carousel” moments, that’s for sure.
The Happy Days comparison is instructive here. Both shows are period pieces, appealing to our sense of nostalgia (“It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”). Both are character-driven. Both revolve around ladykiller leading men who personify masculine cool. Both have supporting characters named Joanie…okay, that one’s s stretch. But there is one crucial difference: unlike Mad Men, Happy Days has an obvious terminus. Just like Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, at some point, Ritchie Cunnigham, Potsie and Ralph Malph have to graduate from high school. Mad Men has no such built-in end point. Matthew Weiner could keep making the show until a silver-haired Don Draper, on a junket to Seattle, tries to convince Nirvana to appear in a Jaguar ad in 1992.
This lack of limitation, more than anything, is the central problem of Mad Men these last few seasons. The Sopranos had to end with Tony either getting killed or getting caught. On Breaking Bad, we know from the pilot that the meth dealer will eventually be found out by his DEA-agent brother-in-law; they are two ships in the night on a slow collision course. There is no such collision course in Mad Men, no looming drug bust or mafia hit. Where is the danger for Don Draper? He owns the company now, so even if the secret of his identity comes out, there’s not much anyone can do about it. And with the country on the verge of the Summer of Love, would anyone even care? The imminent collapse of his marriage to Megan is not upsetting, as no one outside of Jessica Pare’s immediate family wants them to stay together. The drama has to come from somewhere, and none of what we’ve seen in the first three episodes—the affair with Lindsay Weir, the death of Mrs. Sterling, the failure of Project K—is particularly compelling. And the broken shards from last season—Lane Pryce’s suicide and the potential fallout, Mother Lakshmi’s impending con job, Greg Harris’s deployment to Vietnam—have not emerged so far in S6. The show is built completely from character, mood, and theme.
Going in, I expected this to be a banner episode, full of surprises of the accidentally-running-over-the-executive’s-foot-with-ride-on-mower variety. Maybe Joan’s estranged husband would come back from Vietnam in a wheelchair and need her. Maybe the guy from the Jaguar dealership would menace Don in some way. Something. Anything. That did not come to pass.
Technically the fourth ep of the new season, “To Have and to Hold” was a quiet episode, but it was the best of this young season, offering S6’s second magical Mad Men moment (when Don, Pete, and Stan leave the hotel room to find Peggy and Company on deck; the first was the end of the double premiere, when Don wound up in bed with Sylvia). This week’s theme: desire. “To Have and to Hold” refers not to a marriage vow (except ironically, as pretty much everyone is cheating, although in Megan’s case the deceit is simulated) but to wanting. Even our own desires are hinted at. Hoping to spend the night with Don Draper, Arlene is us. Hoping to make out with Joan Harris, Johnny is us. “What did he say?” “That I’d want you.” Harry wants a partnership and Joe Namath in a straw hat. Ginsburg wants to work on Project K. Ken’s father-in-law wants Joey Heatherton. Dawn and the Mary Kay friend want to be Joan, but Joan wants to be someone else. Pete wants Don’s respect, Mel wants Don’s wife, Arlene wants Don’s body, Megan wants Don’s approval, Sylvia wants Don’s peace of mind. What does Don want? He hasn’t the (London) foggiest idea, and neither do we. Indeed, Don’s restlessness is more or less the engine of the show.
The two ketchup campaigns are virtually identical; the only real difference is that one shows the bottle and the other leaves it to the imagination. Now you see it, now you don’t. This underscores another theme of the week: appearance vs. reality. The Mary Kay friend doesn’t know that Joan is only a partner because she prostituted herself. Dawn doesn’t grasp that Scarlet was only using her to sign her timesheet and isn’t her friend. Megan doesn’t realize that the two minutes of heated smooching on set she’s beating herself up about are nothing compared with what Don’s up to. Worst of all, Matthew Wiener hasn’t figured out that Sally Draper is the second most interesting character on the show (sorry, Roger) and continues to ignore her.
Like last season, S6 has started slowly. Wiener has thrown a lot of paint on the canvas—this week, actually, he mostly threw Heinz—and after four-plus hours of programming, we still don’t know what shape it will ultimately take. There are a lot of ways the action could break; one might even say there are 57 varieties of plot twists. Next week, Megan could find out about the affair and go Lorena Bobbitt on Don, as Trudy threatened to do with Pete. Or something really incredible could go down, such as Wiener allowing Betty Draper to look like January Jones again. Either way, I care more after E4 than I did after E3, which is enough to give the episode two Arthur Fonzarelli thumbs up.
That said, I don’t know that happy days are here again. Mad Men seems to have staved off water-ski stunts for the time being. But I sense that the shark is not far away, and when he comes, he’ll want blood, not ketchup.