Compressed TV reality

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I think the divergent reactions to Mad Men‘s “The Other Woman,” especially the Joan story that took up the bulk of the screen time, was an interesting window into how tricky it is to say that a particular plot development is believable or in-character. This issue is there with every plot development: if you don’t believe that a person would behave this way, it changes the way you view a scene. But it seemed to loom much larger in this episode, because the story was so extreme and hinged entirely on making us believe that these people would behave in a certain way. If you believe the men would act the way they do, and that Joan would act the way she does, then the entire plot works as a commentary on the way men treat women and as the melodramatic story of one woman’s decision to turn the whole rotten system to her advantage. If you don’t believe it, then you don’t buy the message the show is trying to sell: you feel like the writers are twisting the characters to make the point they want to make. Those who dislike the episode certainly see it that way.

Did the characters’ behaviour make sense? I didn’t really think so, though I wound up enjoying episode (and the plot) on its own terms as a nod to the ’50s melodramas it resembles. I will say, though, that I find it hard to say definitively that these characters wouldn’t act that way. What I think, and this is a disadvantage TV has always struggled with, is that they wouldn’t act that way so quickly. Even TV shows like Mad Men, whose episodes can build on previous events and have callbacks going back five years, have to have some story points that begin and end within a single episode, and they’ve only got 47 minutes to do it in (which is more than most shows have). If “The Other Woman” were a movie or a play, then all the basic plot elements could be included but spaced out more, given more buildup. In one episode, and interwoven with two other plots, it’s a mad rush just to fit the whole story in, never mind set it up; and a lot of it requires us to take things on faith or on our experience of watching previous episodes.

So it’s not like you could put it past any of these characters to behave the way they do, but having them act that way within the space of about two minutes of screen time probably contributes to making it seem a little unreal. It’s the suddenness of the decision that does it, not the decision itself. It’s like in those sitcoms where characters are arguing one moment and hugging the next: these things do happen in real life, but having the reconciliation take place in 30 seconds (all that TV time allows) is what makes it seem fake.

But lack of time is just a TV convention we all have to accept; the question, usually, is whether the writers can come up with a convincing “turn” in the time they have — a way of convincingly setting up a character’s decision, even if we accept that it happens much faster than it would in real life. I think within that shorthand, the writers sort of did that for Joan, or at least they tried to do it. You can certainly make the argument that the Joan we know would not do what she does in the episode. But at least there are scenes that show her motivation for it; in a very compressed and not always believable sort of way, but there is build-up. The behaviour of the male characters, on the other hand, had so little setup that it seemed to be predicated on the assumption that the whole issue would be discussed in little more time than it takes to discuss any other unpleasant business tactic. For viewers who watch the show with an explicitly political or feminist reading – and it certainly is a political and feminist show – this may work better than it does for other viewers. This review, for example, chides commentators who dislike the unsubtlety of the sexism that goes on in the show: “‘Why can’t it be more complex?,’ they whine, posing as if they have secret knowledge that the pre-second wave era wasn’t as bad as it was.” If there are no depths to which these guys will not sink, then they probably don’t deserve any more time than they get to make this decision.

On the other hand, I think discussion of the reality of the era doesn’t exactly get us anywhere. It’s possible that something like this really happened – even probable, if you assume that people who go through this in real life are less self-aware about what they’re doing. But it’s never about what’s real, it’s about what you can make us believe. And what we can believe isn’t based so much on what would happen in real life as whether we feel the show has set it up properly. One of the questions that I think will divide people in evaluating this episode is whether the show has sufficiently set up a world where men are capable of anything. If it has, then the theme here is a logical extension of what the show has been saying for a long time. If not, then it might seem like it’s straining to make the situation look worse (when the reality, in fact, was bad enough) and we might be resistant to the moral of the story. Sure, it makes thematic sense, but I suspect the episode may have assumed too quickly that if something made thematic sense, it would also make dramatic sense. It didn’t work terribly hard to convince us that this was the way it would really happen.

Still, that they could pull off a plot like this – even with the controversy among the viewers as to whether it worked – is in itself a tribute to the power of series TV to build up a sort of library of character and thematic devices that can inform a skeletal story: even though the storytelling was rushed, the writers counted on the fact that it would be informed by our prior knowledge of the characters and the mythology around them. I doubt, for example, that they could have done this story the way they did if it weren’t for Joan’s previously-established status as the show’s sex symbol. Take that away, and it would seem totally implausible that everyone would reach the conclusion that she, and only she, can rescue this deal. But we’re not just watching a story about one advertising firm and one secretary; for the show’s fans and writers, she’s a near-mythic figure, and that’s the way she’s played in the episode.