The seventh and final season of AMC’s Mad Men premiered last night to a viewership quite different from the one that greeted the series’s 2007 debut. The inflection point came last seasonwhen, improbably, this slow-moving character-driven period piece began to stir its partisans with persistent forebodings of conspiracy and violence. Watchers of this office drama on which, notoriously, nothing ever happens were spying an F.B.I. agent in every new hire and the threat of murder in every graphic t-shirt. Something was afoot.
This new obsessiveness heralded a strange trend in prestige-drama viewing habits. For Mad Men and series like it, fan engagement now entails a frenzied parsing of cluesof quotes, costumes, props, allusionswith the goal of predicting all the turns in a season’s plot. And when (as happened last month with True Detective) a season finale embarrasses its fans’ conjectures, it may bring on a viewer-relations disaster.
Call it paranoia. Everything on screen and soundtrack is a clue, and the viewer’s challenge is to suss out the secrets encoded by the creators’ choices in writing, casting, wardrobe, and art direction. If this is the new way of watching, then every prestige drama is now a detective seriesfor what reasons, and with what consequences, will soon be seen.
A pause to delineate the category “prestige drama.” These are hour-long drama series appearing on HBO (The Sopranos, The Wire, Homeland, Game of Thrones, True Detective), AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), FX (The Americans, Justified), Netflix (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black), or the BBC and PBS (Downton Abbey, Sherlock). These series’ “prestige” accrued initially through their production quality, through their writing, acting, cinematography, and art direction executed at a level previously reserved to feature films. The prestige was then validated by how much money the cable channels were sinking in these projects, which tend to reap plaudits, laurels, and cult followings, though not ratings.
There is prestige for viewers, too. In recaps and in comment threads, on Tumblr and on Twitter, on podcasts and in subreddits, viewers are striving to say the smart things about the smart shows. They are encouraged by the generous inclusion of highbrow allusions (cf. Rule 11 of Vulture’s “13 Rules for Creating a Prestige TV Drama” ). When Mad Men Season Six opened with the first two lines of Inferno in voiceover, viewers who recalled Dante from college made of it . . . various things that seemed pretty clever.
Period details are grist for the mill. The fascination with Mad Men’s 1960s-era material culture is total and totalizing. Aware of series creator Matthew Weiner’s fetish for prop-selection, and aware of the star status of costume designer Janie Bryant, viewers feel challenged to nail down why the creative geniuses have put onscreen the things they put onscreen.
In doing so, they seek to become geniuses of explication. Actually, this is a sound principleand encouraging to those of us who write or teach about literary and paraliterary forms. Teachers of high-school and college English are used to dealing with students to whom literary analysis seems pointless inasmuch as it never yields an empirically verifiable “right” answer. By contrast, the new, analytical style of fan engagement grasps intuitively that it is good to have one’s own “reading” of a story, that there is such a thing as a “good reading” and a “bad reading,” and that a good reading can be supported with evidence from page or screen. Suddenly popular, this package had recently been a tough sell.
This package is not just popular but populist. Here I have reference to the New Critics’ democratic program of “close reading.” In the middle decades of the twentieth century, New Critical pedagogy dominated high-school and college English classrooms, prescribing close attention to individual words, images, and other nit-picking details of the literary text. It was a program well suited to the era of the G.I. Bill, since it meant that you didn’t need a cultivated literary “temper” in order to say something intelligent about a poem or novel. You didn’t even need much literary historyyou only needed an attention span sufficient to master the words on a page.
This reading practice, offering a purchase on literature to anyone who wanted one, receded in the 1970s as pedagogues turned from New Criticism to Big Theory, and further in the 1990s as poetry and novels lost prestige and young people no longer aspired to read them closely for cultural capital. Now, it seems, prestige dramas are reviving the New Critical publica mass of lay readers (or viewers) reading closely in order to participate in a discourse of prestige.
I applaud the revival, but we see its excesses. Witness Megan Draper’s t-shirt. In Episode Eight of Mad Men Season Six, the young wife of Don Draper appeared in a white t-shirt bearing the red star of Vietnam. Twitterists soon identified the garment as identical to one photographed on Sharon Tateand rapidly got costume designer Bryant to confirm that the reference had been “no coincidence!” With this blessing, viewers elaborated parallels between the historical Tate and the fictive Megan, eagerly speculating that Megan would meet Tate’s violent end. Further close reading generated further evidence. Sirens could be heard on the soundtrack, and in the previous episode Draper’s daughter had been reading Rosemary’s Baby, which Tate’s husband Roman Polanski had adapted as a film shortly before Tate’s 1969 murder.
In the event, Season Six concluded without offing Megan. It should be said that some observers had been skeptical all alongbut skepticism does not light up Twitter.
Even more apocalyptically, there had been Bob Benson. Mad Men Season Six introduced this secondary character, a brown-nosing young accounts man, in its premier. Relentlessly cheerful, mysterious as to his background, Benson seemed to be hiding something. He seemed, in some sense, undercover. Inference: Benson must be an FBI agent , deployed to investigate crimes committed by Don Draper during his service in Korea. Alternatively, it might be that Benson, who resembled Draper as a self-made ad man from nowhere, was Draper’s long-lost illegitimate son .
Of these two theories, neither was right. As revealed in Episodes Eleven and Twelve, Benson was in a sense undercoveror rather, in the closet. A young gay man with impoverished origins, accustomed to performing a mainstream identity, Benson was a softer Draper with different secrets, a new answer to the Mad Men questions of why perform, why aspire, why conceal. As such, he was a far more compelling figure than any G-man or lost offspring could be.
Yet these and all similar theories deserve a qualified defense. In speculating about Megan and Benson, viewers had been picking up on the right things. Something violent was evoked by Megan’s t-shirt and the sirens heard around her. That something was the social upheaval of 1968issuing literally in the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, broadcast live to our characters in the previous episode, and emblematically, perhaps, in Helter Skelter in 1969. Megan’s costuming surely embodied the disorder of the times.
But this figurative significance was not a plot intention. Again, something was up with Bob Bensonand again the reading broke down when it became predictive of a plot twist. Benson would not put our hero in handcuffs. And while he might be a junior Draper, he was not Draper Jr.
We can sum up the error by saying that the new approach to “reading” prestige drama is forensic rather than aesthetic. Lay viewers have not relinquished their expectation that evidence should yield an empirically verifiable “right” answer. They feel that their close readings, in order to be worthwhile, will need to be vindicated by turns in the plot.
This feeling is encouraged by the insistently diachronic nature of a television series: “Previously, on Mad Men”; “Next time, on Mad Men.” All things will become clear in time, i.e. at the finale. It is encouraged, too, by the horizontal patterns of fan engagement facilitated by the Internet. Schools of thought develop in subreddits, and theories gain and lose partisans according as they are borne out or discredited week to week. Who can boast the most accurate decoder ring? In this context of competitive close reading, the goal of analysis becomes not to enrich our understanding of an aesthetic artifact, but rather to decrypt a riddle and predict an outcometo outsmart other viewers and the series.
Given the forensic turn in viewing habits, it should be no surprise that, this year, detective series have caught fire as prestige dramas. Before HBO’s True Detective premiered on January 12, Season Three of the BBC’s Sherlock had premiered to U.K. viewers and U.S. piraters on January 1. Sherlock is aware of the speculative nature of its fan engagementperhaps to a faultand its Season Three premier showed the upsides and the drawbacks of manipulating that speculation.
Sherlock fans had spent the hiatus theorizing about how the Great Detective had faked his season-ending death. Here the forensic mode of close reading seemed clearly called for: There was a puzzle to solve, and had not Sherlock trained his fans to regard all things visible as clues? Reddit did what Reddit does . In a meta gesture, and as a backhanded thank-you, the premier had one character descend into paranoia and spout ripped-from-the-fanfic theories, even heading a group of true believers (“I believe in Sherlock Holmes”).
When the man himself reappeared and revealed his methods, the general verdict was disappointment. (Does it even . . . make sense? ) And if Sherlock Season Three managed to escape a backlash, that may be because of something else it had ripped from the fanfica pair of fantasized make-out sequences. Tumblr was aglow . Sherlock was able to disappoint its theorizers without serious consequence, because its theorizers tend also to be fantasists.
Not so the theorizers of True Detective. This series, with its conspiracy plot and its novelist for a creator, most egregiously invited the category error of literary device as forensic evidence. Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow was touted as an all-sufficient code-breakerbut there were other options, too. If you cracked the Five Horsemen code, or the M-brane code, or the Schopenhauer code, or the what-have-you code, you preempted the finale! So it went, until the finale declared that all the apparatus of conspiracy and allusion had been beside the point.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto claimed to be surprised by the nature of True Detective fan engagement: “I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised. . . . Like, why do you think we’re tricking you?” Pizzolatto is right in this sense, that code-breaking is not the proper aim of close reading. When resonances or evocations are appropriated as plot predictions, analysis will have the effect of flattening the story (reducing it to the “right” answer) rather than enriching it. People are “connecting,” but the discourse of prestige is unsupervised, since the ether, unlike the New Critics, is a lazy pedagogue.
But increasingly, the viewers’ excesses are the fault of series creators. True Detective has shown that the best way to generate buzz is to get viewers competing at the sport of prestige discourse. The lesson is not lost on Mad Men creator Weiner, who recently hit this ominous note in an interview about his show’s final season: “Once I knew what [the ending] was, I could see that there are things throughout the entire series that will seem related to it. Certainly there are things in these first seven episodes that you’ll go back to and be able to say, ‘Oh there it is.’”
Of course. As artists, the creators surely know better. As businessmen, they know exactly what they are doing. And as John Podhoretz has written , they will keep doing it for as long as we let them.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University. Image from AMC .
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