Why We Love to Let ‘Mad Men’ Drive Us Mad

Mad Men is a show made by compulsives, for compulsives, that rewards compulsivity. But when you find yourself looking for messages and answers in the pattern of a dress, it's time to step back and just enjoy it.

Frank Ockenfels/AMC

I knew I had a problem when Lane committed suicide. Sure, intellectually I knew my relationship to Mad Men was unhealthy before then—the binge watching, the obsessive consumption of every single piece of criticism I could get my hands on, wondering ahead of time what fashion critics Tom and Lorenzo would saythe significance of Joan’s dead-roses dress is—but it hit home when I couldn’t get the image of a blue-faced dummy of Jared Harris out of my mind … and also couldn’t process my feelings about it without getting Alan Sepinwall’s take.

That night, I had a dream about it; the next day, it was hard to get work done. What is wrong with you, I thought, that you are this deeply invested in a fictional world?

I’m not the only one. Every April—or, more realistically, when Matthew Weiner says it’s time—we collectively lose our minds over Mad Men. What started as a trickle in 2007 is now a flood: no season can begin without revisits that feel like crib notes, trying to suss apart trailers as inscrutable as they are beautiful, triangulating to figure out when in time the series will begin and which historical events they will tackle; taking even Weiner’s infamous list of Things That Must Not Be Discussed and then trying to mine that for information.

It’s an easy world to fall into but a difficult one to be in, as you know, if you’ve ever gone through four or five episodes in a row only to find yourself in a near-fetal position on the couch, big-eyed, slightly tipsy on the whiskey you’ve been drinking sympathetically and wondering if anything will ever be OK. But we can’t stay away from it, and even after the final credits roll, we go further.

Mad Men is so carefully and deliberately put together that it’s invariably satisfying to pull apart and examine each gear, even as it pulls itself—or at least its characters, its industry, its era—apart. No show about destruction has ever been so beautifully constructed, and few shows leave you feeling so deeply sad about humanity even as you covet their desk accessories.

This is a show about things whose beautiful surfaces mask the constant decay, and we viewers feel the urge to hasten that decay, to speculate amongst ourselves about what this corpse will look like next week. It’s not enough to spend an hour within its walls. We vacuum up everything we can from our television critics of choice, take to Reddit and Tumblr for GIFs of Pete Campbell doing whatever ridiculous things he has done, and scrape our brains for any little detail or foreshadowing that the rest of the Mad Men chattering class somehow overlooked.

Mad Men makes armchair critics out of all of us. It makes for a viewing experience where the most important part isn’t necessarily the conversation that the show has with its consumers, it’s the conversation the consumers have afterward with one another. It’s a show made by compulsives, for compulsives, that rewards compulsivity. When you know the dozens of prior events that one searching glance between, say, Peggy and Pete refers to, a small reward center lights up in your brain. I’m smart. I remember things, and understand nuance. TO THE INTERNET TO DISCUSS!

Because we often treat this show as though it is a divine artifact handed down from the gods rather than a show made by humans (very talented humans, but humans nonetheless) the rare but increasingly frequent missteps seem huge. How dare Matthew Weiner, whom none of us know personally and does not, technically speaking, owe anything to any of us—do such a thing? Let’s see what the A.V. Club has to say about THIS!

The first four seasons of Mad Men were so flawless and fine that it felt like a personal betrayal when the last two tipped their hands so blatantly; after so many Ominous Things That Happen to Don—the elevator shaft, the ill-fated Marine, passing out in that pool—we rolled our eyes. We get it. Something bad is going to happen. Again. Always.

The deeper and more robust the internet conversations about Mad Men become, the more often it’s us who are reading tea leaves that simply aren’t there. Remember the frenzy over whether Megan’s Sharon Tate shirt mean that Bob Benson would become Charles Manson?

And here lies the fundamental problem with this aspect of how we consume the show: at a certain point, it becomes impossible to stay with and enjoy a piece of art when you are trying to forecast, in real-time, what everything means and where it will go. We stop taking pleasure in the show itself, and instead focus on what we willsay about it.

Starting Sunday—though spread, for reasons that surely have nothing to do with advertising revenue, over two half-seasons—we head into the end of it. If you’ve ever read a piece of Mad Men criticism, or gone in full and period accurate dress to a party, or spent even a half-second of your time wondering if mustard yellow is still Peggy’s power color, the pleasure can mix with dread. Here we go again, strapping ourselves in for hours of reading, analysis, and endless watercooler talks designed to demonstrate that not only are we the kind of people who watch Mad Men, but also the kind who have keen and heartbreaking insight.

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But Mad Men isn’t a puzzle whose answer we’ve been eagerly awaiting and whose solution has been foretold seasons ago. It’s not Lost. It’s a slow, immersive, seductive, beautiful show, one whose better seasons rival almost everything that we’ve ever seen. It’s a show that exists thanks to actual human beings who have worked very, very hard on it. It’s a show that still has things to tell us. Maybe it’s time to relax and just enjoy it.