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Mad Men - The Art of the Story
April 28, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 3 comments

It's always a close race, but this season's Mad Men demonstrates why the art direction of this first-rate show edges past that of the former ongoing title holder, Breaking Bad...

It very well may be that once Breaking Bad starts up again, the crown will go right back. (The contest is only here in this one corner of TVWW, anyway.)  It's a happy dilemma for both AMC - the cable channel that is the home of both shows - and us, the audience, that these shows are examples of the best writing around, and even better cases of television bringing cinematic level art direction to the small(er) screen.

Mad Men has exceeded expectations this year in a couple of instances, particularly in Episode Four, "Mystery Date," and again last week in Episode Six, "Far Away Places." Both shows embodied great narrative arcs that were closely matched by art direction that elevated them to great, short films.

The episode "Mystery Date" was all about things on the other side of the door, whether it be an enchanting surprise, or the complete opposite. Series creator and head writer Matthew Weiner used the episode as an opportunity to revive the old '60s black-and-white commercial for Mystery Date, the once-popular game for girls in which players opened a door to find either a prized dreamboat or, in a losing moment, an unkempt dud.

In Mad Men's "Mystery Date," one door opened to an unnerving dark side of lead character Don Draper, (Jon Hamm) who, in a fever dream, strangled an ex-lover who had returned to tempt him back into infidelity.

Dream or not it was a chilling moment, done in drawn-out detail, and it finished out an hour where Weiner and his creative team smartly used the doors not only as theatrical devices, but metaphorical ones that revealed unpleasant things about the main characters. The concept effectively took us deeper into the interpersonal ambiguities that the show investigates so well.

Then there was last week's "Far Away Places." This time the conceit was all about reflections and mirrors, with each character taking a turn in front that visual device. The show was all about getting away, and as Weiner explained on the AMC website, it was a throw-back to literary anthologies of three independent vignettes intertwining and crossing each other.

"Far Away Places" shows us that Weiner, the writers, the creative team and the actors are quite possibly at the top of their game, with the maturity and skill to go anywhere they want, making broad strokes, and doing it with stunning expertise.

We again saw Don, who, ostensibly has everything - money, success, a pretty wife, a high-rise New York flat - yet he's still unable to find equanimity in his interpersonal relationships. Then there's his protoge, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who tried her hand at becoming Don, a smoking and drinking male force within the firm, and lost her balance.

We also see Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the firm's bad boy in a man's suit. In one of the show's most odd and hilarious story lines to date, Roger went on a drug-induced trip with his wife Jane (Peyton List) and descended with her into unvarnished honesty about their relationship, while being surrounded by surreal visions - one of himself with half of his gray hair gone, and another of Don behind him in the mirror telling him to stay with his wife because "who wants to be alone in the truth of you."

Roger's inward getaway and Don's actual one to an upstate Howard Johnson's, were both chances for art director Christopher Brown to demonstrate what the show's creative team is capable of by telegraphing unforgettable images along with evolutions of the characters that are as surprising as they are unnerving.

Breaking Bad has been a shining example of how producer and show creator Vince Gilligan has made great visual choices to support a provocative story line that not only looks at American crime, but also at an evaporating American Dream in an empty suburbia. The stunning choices in photography, costumes, lighting and locations have made that series into one of the great dramatic journeys of our time.

Mad Men has also surrounded its cast with similar artistic elements, like the image of Roger and Jane together, with their heads wrapped - as if bandaged - in raspberry towels, showing us that even though the couple seems fine on the outside, they are damaged when they try to meet minds. The show also gives us sleek corporate interiors, colorful abstract art and the mod fashions of the Sixties. All of it effortlessly comes alive, as though just stepping out the pages of an old Life magazine.

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Jun 26, 2023   |  Reply
Okay, I checked out the other article. Thanks for pointing it out (I missed it originally). Great photos and great analysis with lots of good, specific examples of how color, clothing, toys, etc. are used. Thanks.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
I absolutely agree: both shows are wonderfully cinematic. And just seeing that bright orange roof on the Howard Johnson's brought back a flood of memories. And I'm constantly amazed by the use of color in both Mad Men and Breaking Bad--I'm really going to have to go back and look at earlier seasons specifically with that in mind. Nice analysis.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
Jan - have a look at the Breaking Bad photo survey hyper-linked in the article. A worthwhile trip through the first three seasons of the show's unique vision. --EG
Apr 27, 2012
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