When 99 called dibs on season finales in the spring, I did a tiny bit of silent brooding--I'm obsessed with questions of closure, you see, and especially with how the failures and successes of finales so often determine how we look back on a series years down the line. There's something exciting about being able to weigh in at the end--give what you hope might be the Last Word on the narrative.
But here's the thing--this emphasis on closure has also always struck me as perverse. We place so much power in the final episode of a season or series, forgetting the the real pleasure of long-form serials happens in the middle (and in the waiting between installments). So with that in mind, I'm officially claiming dominion over season/series premieres.
I should say, too, that I'm not invested in doing recaps here. Instead, I'm seeing this as an opportunity to think through the season premiere as Event Television. As such, I'll talk not just about where I think the show might be going in the coming season, but about the experience of watching it more generally: the general level and tone of the hoopla around the episode, how it falls in the nightly lineup, what the fan community is like, etc.
So, now that we've got that taken care of, I watched Mad Men on Sunday after getting fully on board with all the preseason hoopla. As such, I'd voraciously read all the online reviews and thus knew that the season would be starting almost a year after the surprise formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that closed out season three. This will be the first season of Mad Men I will have watched live, and thus the first time that I will be free of spoilers (and that's even more certain now that Matthew Weiner has refused to offer prescreeners to critics!).
The question of spoilers seems more loaded with regard to Mad Men than other serials, since its historical setting means that we're rarely surprised by the larger machinations of the plot (I'm thinking of Roger's wedding on the day of the Kennedy assassination, for instance, or Don's date's mention of the ACLU members lynched in Mississippi). One of the things that distinguishes my experience of watching Mad Men from other serials is the sense of dread that suffuses the series. As much as the show is about making the present look better in comparison to the past, it's also about idealizing that past, as all the fetishization of the drinks and style can attest. As such, even though I hardly see the 1950s as some antediluvian paradise, the casual mentions of unavoidable change make me brace for the uneasy future for these characters.
One of the weirdest things about watching the show (and one that no one seems to have mentioned), is the effect of its back-to-back pairing with True Blood. Is the delicious and tacky excess of the coming vampire/werewolf war in Bon Temps part of the future I'm bracing myself against while watching Mad Men? As gruesome and explicit as things can get on Mad Men (lawnmower mishaps or hallway fingering, anyone?), it's missing the sense of glee that characterizes True Blood. As much as I think it would be good for all of them (especially Sally Draper) to cut loose, I'm afraid of whatever upheaval would make the move from the world of Mad Men to the world of True Blood possible.
This dread is the funny thing about Mad Men, and why I think it might, for all its focus on the pains of patriarchy, be fundamentally a pretty conservative show. The structure of the show, thus far, has made us fear change. This season holds the promise of something different, though--at least I hope so. The characters who seem in the best shape are Peggy and Pete, and they're the ones whose lives have changed most fundamentally in the nine months that have elapsed between seasons. Betty is the only one who's still hanging on to her old life, and that doesn't seem to be working too well for her, as her petulant-girl routine no longer gains much audience sympathy when she isn't being actively victimized. Even Don is at his most beleaguered when he's trying to hold onto his old life (see the incredibly depressing decor of his "bachelor pad").
So I'm wondering--are we headed into a new kind of Mad Men? One that won't be characterized by dread? Or will the dread just keep ratcheting up? Thoughts?