Mad Men Season Three Podcast: Observations and Ruminations

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A Mad Men Season Three Podcast

November 14th, 2009

What’s really interesting about Mad Men’s third season is that, because of how strong the finale was, it makes criticizing the season as a whole somewhat difficult. It requires sort of forgetting about how great the finale was, and going back to consider just how everything came together. The finale, in some ways, rewrote some of our concerns about the season: we wanted more Sterling Cooper drama and we got more Sterling Cooper drama, and we complained about Joan’s marginalization and suddenly Joan was back front and centre.

So when I joined The House Next Door’s Luke De Smet and The A.V. Club/etc.’s Todd VanDerWerff for a special TV on the Internet/House Next Door Mad Men Season Three podcast, there was a definite sense that the strength of the finale has in some way coloured our opinions on the rest of the season. I’m not suggesting that the third season was bad, but rather that in our enjoyment of the finale (and a couple of other key episodes) we may have spent more time talking about what works than we did talking about what didn’t (although we do discuss some of the story elements that were perhaps underdeveloped). It’s a great conversation, discussing a number of key subjects and focusing on different areas of the show’s success, but there were a couple of more negative things I wanted to say about the season that almost didn’t fit into the podcast’s narrative thanks to how much goodwill the finale created for all of us.

As such, after the jump I’ll go into detail on the one major issue I have with the season that didn’t make it into the podcast, but do go have a listen before reading on.

One of the things that I saw online after the finale was the assertion that Conrad Hilton was a MacGuffin, which is something I find legitimately fascinating. If Conrad Hilton had remained a random partygoer at Roger and Jane’s party, then perhaps this would be a fair point. However, Conrad Hilton was so clearly defined as an individual that to claim he is a MacGuffin is to ignore his larger than life identity. Conrad Hilton was a self-made man, rising from nothing to create a huge empire, so in Don he saw someone not entirely unlike himself. That was clear from the start of their relationship, and was also at the heart of their conversation in the finale: Connie has been manipulating Don in an effort to test his character, to see if he is capable of standing up to the kinds of pressures he faced up to and whether he’ll be ready for something more important in his future. I thought the scene captured why Don, who’s always resisted images of the future due to his focus on maintaining his identity in the present and avoiding his past identity, would feel stymied by Hilton sending him flying across the world.

However, while I don’t believe that Hilton was a MacGuffin, I will argue that the storyline was significantly mishandled towards the end of the season. There was a point where Don was constantly being pulled out of bed by Hilton, and where it was keeping him from being home, which seemed like it was creating tension in his marriage. However, once Don decided that this was actually a brilliant cover for falling into bed with Sally’s former teacher, Suzanne Farrell. And at that point the two characters literally replace one another, with Suzanne serving as Don’s distraction from home and the show pretty much ignoring Hilton until that scene in the finale.

I have two issues with this, the first about the character of Suzanne herself, who is definitely more of a MacGuffin than Hilton is. I understand that there is something about the character which makes her appealing to Weiner, being a sort of flower child before her time and offering a more laid back mistress for Don as his humble upbringing rises to the surface. However, I never felt like she really evolved beyond being this sort of ephemeral being, never becoming anything close to a real character. A lot of people were wondering online whether she was legitimately crazy, which is less the result of subtle hints and more the result of a complete lack of hints leading the audience to presume something downright bizarre. I can fully understand why Don would find her attractive both physically and emotionally during this time, I want to make that extremely clear, but I don’t understand what it accomplished in terms of his character or in terms of the season’s story arcs. Don having a mistress makes sense for the story, but the character never developed into a significant-enough element of the story to justify the time we spent with her, especially considering that we abandoned Hilton in order to accomplish it.

And that’s my second issue with the storyline, the fact that it’s Hilton who ends up being important in the finale and Suzanne is never even mentioned. If the show’s goal is to keep Suzanne around for the fourth season, I feel as if we needed to see something of her in this finale to underscore her value to Don, even if the way he broke it off with her made sense as his past has been unraveled by Betty and he needs to try to save his marriage. The show dropped Hilton like a sack of potatoes to introduce her, and then dropped her like a sack of potatoes once she was no longer useful, to the point where both characters felt like they never really mattered as much as they could have to the season’s overall arcs. Betty’s Henry Francis was no better developed, sure, but he was never a replacement for another character, nor was he at any point as dominant as Hilton was to the storyline.

It’s the one question I’d be really curious to ask Weiner right now, in terms of whether there was any sort of rushing around with these characters that influenced their impact in any way. I know that Weiner has indicated that they were unsure of how important Hilton would be until they got Chelcie Ross in for the role and discovered how strong a presence he was, and perhaps that ended up convoluting that third quarter of the season and providing some narrative hiccups.

Cultural Observation

  • Just to be also clear, I thought both Abigail Spencer and Chelcie Ross gave strong performances in the respective roles, so I think this was an issue of overall season organization rather than of any individual failure.
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