I don’t watch a lot of television these days, but one show I do make time for is Mad Men. I think it has the smartest writing on television. Each episode is a master craft of character-driven writing. Just when I think I can predict which way creator/showrunner/writer Matthew Weiner is going to take the storyline, I’m thrown a curve which leaves me breathlessly going “I didn’t see that coming,” followed by “Why didn’t I see that coming? It was all there, right in the characters.” For me, Mad Men has become essential viewing, and I always harvest a nugget that will help my own writing.[If you don’t watch Mad Men, you should start. Seriously.]
This past week, an episode aired which will surely be nominated for an Emmy. Called The Suitcase, it was basically a payoff of three seasons of character building for the lead protagonist Don Draper, and his protégée/female work counterpart Peggy Olsen. At the start of the episode, they are both ruining their lives, Don with his drinking, Peggy by putting her personal life on the backburner for her job as one of the few female copywriters in the advertising profession. But by the end of the episode, both had come back from the abyss, saved by the other. And no, there wasn’t a shred of romance involved between them. Don, who was avoiding a phone call to find out that the one person who loved him unconditionally was dead, spent the episode getting progressively hammered until he was literally on his knees vomiting his life away in a toilet. Peggy chose work over her boyfriend, humiliating him because she was unwilling to leave an unfinished ad campaign to meet him for a romantic dinner. Both reached out to the other across the divide of gender, work politics, and human frailty to bond in a way that will have repercussions for the future.
The lesson I drew from this episode was this: don’t be afraid to give your character a fatal flaw, but make sure that flaw informs every aspect of their actions and reactions. Then take them to the utter limits of that flaw before you have the story put them back together again.
Weiner’s genius is that he doesn’t worry if the audience finds his characters temporarily repelling. He knows we are going to keep watching because we want to know how they are going to cope. I should note that he’s careful to make each character fully dimensional, with positive and negative traits. Don’s ex-wife Betty, for example, is a terrible, often cruel mother, but she’s also a woman trying to cope with the rigid gender role assigned to her by birth and economic status. So we empathize with her trying to have her kids be perfect, even if her methods of parenting leave us cringing.
In an interview with Rolling Stone (Sept. 16, 2010), Weiner, who has suffered his share of rejection as a television writer, says that the overarching theme of Mad Men is to have the characters answer the question who am I? Informed by time, place, their flaws and strengths, each character on the show, even the most minor, are answering this question. Weiner never deviates from this theme. I’ve learned to apply this to my own writing, too.
Which television shows do you find compelling from a writer’s standpoint and why? What lessons have you learned from them that you use in your own writing?