Sit back on your sofa and raise a glass to return of The Don
As the sixth season of 'Mad Men' kicks off, Tommy Conlon says the show's success stems from top-notch writing
The final scene in the final episode of season five ends with two questions from a stranger.
A blonde in a bar materialises at the counter beside Don Draper. She asks for a light of her cigarette. Then she asks him: "Are you alone?"
The immaculate television drama Mad Men returns this evening for its sixth season with a two-hour premiere on the American cable channel AMC. British and Irish viewers will get to see it on Wednesday night on Sky Atlantic.
Last summer Lisa Albert, one of its writers and producers, gave a talk at the Galway Film Fleadh. She maintained that Mad Men, like The Sopranos before it, had pulled off a positively old-fashioned coup. It had become "a communal experience" for its millions of fans, even though more people than ever were watching television alone; and even though the TV schedules can no longer compel viewers to gather at one time in one place for their appointed date.
She was preaching to the converted in Galway. But Mad Men has left a lot of people cold: "Boring Eisenhower twaddle," in the words of one sceptic. And, to be fair, it does require patience. It doesn't do guns, narcotics or car chases. But it does character. It does character with the skill and complexity of great American novelists such as Philip Roth or Richard Ford.
That's not easy, on television. But the writers have taken their time, because they've had plenty of it – some 66 hours so far over the past five seasons. During that time, their judgement has been reliably delicate and shrewd. They have built their characters layer upon layer, year by year as the Sixties scroll past. They have imagined them into life with care . The quality control has been fastidious. It has been a sustained demonstration of high-precision creative intelligence.
Every episode has its key scenes. Time and again during the set-up for such a scene, the writers have put themselves into a tight corner. The set-up has built the tension: now for the execution, the release. One waits for a misstep, a bum note, a false word. And it seldom arrives. The characters say exactly the right thing at the right time. It is high-wire writing managed with impeccable balance and control.
Visually Mad Men is beautiful. The clothes, the retro aesthetic are all part of the initial seduction. But it has never shown any signs of desperation to lure the masses. It has a take-it-or-leave-it sangfroid. Many episodes feel like self-contained chamber pieces.
Most would transfer seamlessly to a theatre stage. It is enveloped in a stillness which demands similar stillness from the viewer. By the end of a particularly compelling instalment you are almost holding your breath.
In the opening episode of season one, Peggy Olson is a newly arrived secretary at the Madison Avenue advertising agency where the core drama takes place. In a few devastating scenes she is exposed to a type of sexism that is both nonchalant and vicious. A nervous interloper from the New York suburbs, she is intimidated by the power and glamour around her. But she wants to escape the typing pool. Slowly she navigates her way through the personal and professional landmines.
By the end of season five she is barking out orders to a couple of male copywriters from behind her desk. Her upward trajectory is handled with empathy and stealth. There are no convenient quantum leaps in her journey. Instead she makes her way painfully across a psychic tightrope, poised always between her private aspirations and her underdog's manifest fear.
On her first day at work Peggy is chaperoned by the office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). With her voluptuous physique, Miss Holloway can work a room without saying a word. Ample, luxuriant, she sashays her way through the company in a statement strut, the like of which hasn't been seen onscreen since the heyday of John Wayne's swagger. Joan's bosom is not so much an erotic promise as a military invasion. And she can cut a man in two with a put-down.
Her sparring partner, verbal and occasionally nocturnal, is the walking one-liner Roger Sterling. "Stop being demure, you're already on the bed," flips the sixty-something adolescent to a conquest.
But the main man is Mr Draper. The Don. He is the dark matter at the heart of the story: a bottle of smoke, a construct of secrets and lies. Don knows the secrets of human desire; it's why he's the best creative director on Madison Avenue.
"Are you alone?" Of course he's alone. "You're born alone," he says in the very first episode, "and you die alone. I'm living like there's no tomorrow because there isn't one." And he is here to fill the void by selling us consumer goods with a cheerful lie.
He knows it's a pitiful existence but knowing it doesn't make him immune from its terrors. He also needs his consolations, to get him through the day and the night: a sharp suit, for starters. An attractive woman, naturally, plus a stiff whiskey and a cigarette.
"Advertising," he says, "is based on one thing – happiness." Obviously it's not working, and never has. But it has inspired one marvellous feat of storytelling. Mad Men: good things come to those who wait.