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Mad Men, A Show Born From The Sopranos

By on April 8, 2013
Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Image © AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Image © AMC

By Donald McCarthy

It’s become almost cliché at this point to say that The Sopranos changed television’s landscape. There’s no question that it brought about new, daring shows, but what few comment on is that almost no show adopted The Sopranos’ artsy approach which lead to intense look at existential dread, where we saw just how empty life can be. While there are a number of antihero shows on television, none of them resemble The Sopranos in any deep way. Thematically and aesthetically, The Sopranos stands on its own.

Well, almost.

The arrival of Mad Men in 2007 went unnoticed by most despite widespread critical acclaim. Its win at the Emmys began to alert viewers to the show’s intelligence and depth. Still, the show never achieved stellar ratings because it was difficult to engage with due to its dreamy atmosphere and uncompromising look at existential despair. Only The Sopranos had truly done this before and that show got away with it because creator David Chase knew how to make a mob show into something infinitely more than just shoot out after shoot out. Mad Men did not have that same hook.

But when you ignore the genres, there are similarities between the two shows that are noteworthy and tell us that there is room on television not just for gritty realism, but also for more artsy, thoughtful programs that tackle the day to day existence of human life.

Let’s look at the opening credits of each respective show as both of them set the mood. The Sopranos’ opening is very dreamlike. We constantly fade in an out as we see clips from Tony’s journey from New York to his home in New Jersey. We get brief glimpses of Tony but not until the end do we see him fully.
Mad Men’s opening is similar in mood. We begin with a shot of a figure that appears to be Don Draper and we enter an even more dreamlike process than that of The Sopranos’ beginning. The room falls apart and all of a sudden Don is falling, but before he hits the ground the image changes, as if he woke up, and we see him from behind, smoking on his couch.

The dreamy quality of both shows makes them stand out among other television programs and it is this quality that likely gives them a more artistic feel. Oftentimes both dramas have been accused of having “nothing happen” which is never the real case. Because neither drama is showy in its direction and tend to be uninterested in the plot twists that they provide (as good as those twists often are), the stories feel like they are in a fog. Scenes of Tony Soprano contemplating his next move almost always seem eerily calm. Perhaps the promo for the final season of the show represents it in a concise way. We see similar shots of Tony standing in thought as the camera lingers around him, but here we hear the voices that bounce around in his head.

But the more dreamlike atmosphere isn’t just because of the direction and the writing; both shows also feature actual dreams and hallucinations. Take, for instance, Tony Soprano’s dream in the season four episode “Calling All Cars.” It is one of the show’s best moments and perhaps the best dream sequence ever done on television (Tony’s head trip to Costa Mesa while he’s in a coma doesn’t count- but we’ll get to that). In it, we see Tony approaching an old house; first while wearing a dress shirt and then wearing just a t-shirt. As he calls to the person in the house he gradually loses the ability to speak English. Inside the house we see a figure on the staircase- one that looks just like his mother.

To say this represents that Tony cannot escape his past is too easy. Yes, it’s true that Tony’s mother, even though dead, still lingers in his mind and influences his life. But images of the past also reflect our concerns about the future. It makes sense that the past would come into play because all we have to go by is past experience. In “Calling All Cars” Tony has just quit therapy and only two episodes before he killed one of his capos, Ralph Cifaretto. Just two episodes down the road is a possible war with New York and a separation in his marriage. Tony knows that his life is in turmoil even if he tries not to show it as he goes about his day.

Creator David Chase once commented that on television people don’t talk how we do; in real conversation, we mostly lie to some extent. Tony doesn’t tell people how he’s worried about his marriage, not even to his therapist, nor does he come close to broaching the subject of Ralph’s death. But because Tony’s mother lingers in his dream we know that these are on his mind as his mother has been responsible for both physical and emotional damage. Her presence in the dream is a clue to Tony and to us that more of this despair is coming. It sets a nice feeling of dread over now just Tony but also the audience.
Without the dream imagery, there is no way the show could convey Tony’s subconscious as well as it does. After all, if he comes out and says anything about it then it’s not really his subconscious, is it?

Mad Men uses a similar tactic to delve into its protagonist’s life crisis. In the fifth season finale, “The Phantom,” Don Draper hallucinates after being given drugs at the dentist. Don sees the dentist as his deceased step-brother, Adam, who hung himself after Don refused to embrace him into his life. Adam tells Don, “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.”

It was a line that seemed to split critics of Mad Men. Some thought it too over the top while others thought it chilling. However, most agreed that Don saw this vision due to the recent death of his peer, Lane Pryce, who also committed suicide via hanging. It doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out that Adam is appearing not just because Don still feels guilty about his step-brother’s death, but because he feels a certain amount of responsibility towards Lane’s premature death. Don is often cold and hard to read so these glimpses into his psyche bring him into life in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Both Tony and Don’s experiences rely not just on the characters having rich pasts but also on the audience having an understanding of those characters’ pasts and being smart enough to put together the pieces. Interviewed shortly after the finale of The Sopranos ended, David Chase said he believed his show had one of the smartest audiences out there as he didn’t need to spoon feed them. Mad Men creator, and one of the former writers of The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner clearly shares the same attitude as he expects viewers to remember cues from previous episodes without explanation.

Giving the audience this responsibility can be dangerous territory, but it yields captivating scenes like the above two. There is no way these scenes would cut it on a CSI or Grey’s Anatomy. But because both The Sopranos and Mad Men are interested in having a smart audience and are interested in exploring similar, existential themes, they are able to produce television that no other show could get away with. It’s even difficult to imagine Walter White from Breaking Bad, an unquestionably smart show, having a dream sequence or hallucination packed with references that immediately clue us in on his subconscious thoughts.

But why this different form of storytelling?

The answer lies with two key scenes, one from each show.

In the Mad Men season five episode “Lady Lazarus,” a true highpoint of the show, Don Draper hits the button for the elevator. He’d just been speaking with his wife, Megan, and realizes he wants to say something else to her as she leaves the office for the last time. What happens when the doors open is perhaps the perfect symbol for both Mad Men and The Sopranos.

The doors open and there’s no elevator. There’s just an abyss.

Changing his mind at the last moment, wanting to say just one more thing to his wife, is an attitude typical of Don’s. He often pushes people to their breaking point and then pulls back at the last second when he realizes they might leave him (such as when Peggy announces her departure in “The Other Woman”). The elevator not being there is the universe telling Don that he’s teetering on the edge. Don has tried to improve himself on a number of occasions throughout the show but he always backs away, not really ready to make a full commitment. It’s not exactly a revelation to say that Don is unhappy. What is remarkable is how perfect a symbol the elevator shaft is for the hole in Don’s life and how afraid he is to look into that hole. It’s a direct dare to the viewer to question his/her own place in life.

The Sopranos gives us a very similar scene. Tony’s existence throughout the show has been continuously marred by depression, the causes of which are varied, but usually go to him not being truly happy with what his life has become. The show manages to perfectly contextualize Tony’s despair at the start of the sixth season. In the sixth season premiere, “Members Only,” Tony is shot in the gut at episode’s end. We open the next episode, “Join the Club,” with Tony attending a conference in Costa Mesa California. But he’s not the normal Tony. This Tony is in some sort of otherworld. This Tony isn’t a mobster; he’s a businessman. The suitcase he has doesn’t belong to him; it belongs to a man named Kevin Finnerty, a man who looks remarkably similar to Tony Soprano. Because he doesn’t have his suitcase, Tony has no money, can’t attend his conference, and can’t fly home because he doesn’t have his proper ID. He talks to his wife on the phone who tries to counsel him but to no avail.

After a day fraught with encounters with angry Buddhists and consistent failure when it comes to finding his suitcase, Tony returns to his hotel room in what is one of the best scenes in The Sopranos’ run. Tony picks up the phone, ready to call is wife for help, but he instead just sighs and places the phone back down. Moby’s song “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” begins to play as Tony sits down on the bed and stares out the window, a light blinking in the distance. He is completely adrift. I guarantee that there was no audience member who could not see themselves, at one point in their life or currently, in that scene.

Mad Men’s elevator sequence and The Sopranos’ plot in Costa Mesa would be impossible in any other show that did not as readily accept dreams, dream imagery, and allusions to the subconscious into the narrative. By allowing their narratives to be filled with seemingly supernatural or otherworldly aspects, they’ve been able to make their main characters more real. The fact that we see Don Draper and Tony Soprano’s subconscious brought to life allows us to understand them in a way that we otherwise could not. We are able to see the holes in their lives, the holes that drive Tony to depression and that drive Don to keep changing his life every chance he gets, never being able to follow through. It’s a very brave form of storytelling as it can easily go awry and scare off viewers. It’s not a surprise that few shows followed The Sopranos’ dreamy, surreal side but Mad Men did and it’s now being lauded as one of the best shows on television.

With Mad Men only having two seasons left, the ball is now in future creators’ court.