Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz
Abrams Books, 2015; 464 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
During Mad Men’s 7-season run on television, the only relief from the agonizing wait between episodes came in the form of Matt Zoller Seitz’s weekly recaps. Publishing in print and online, Seitz wrote the most consuming dissections of the series, immersing himself in the subtle psychology, history, and cultural context. He writes with scholarly precision but an emotional accessibility akin to the late great Roger Ebert’s rich body of work. Seitz capitalized on weekly television recaps early on into the format’s existence, and Mad Men became the perfect program to show its value.
Set in a New York advertising office in the 1960s, Mad Men tells about the personal and professional lives of its many employees as the bump up against the currents of a turbulent decade. Mad Men is high art, featuring a level of depth and complexity that feels novelistic, especially in the way it tackles issues of sexuality, gender, race, politics, and the culture of its setting. With a psychoanalytical approach, Seitz cuts to the heart of the series. His new book Mad Men Carousel is an edited collection of those recaps, with several seasons reviewed by him for the first time. Complete with annotations that provide additional background material (mostly with the historical context of the show), Seitz’s book recaptures the same rush the show had for fans when these episodes debuted.
Even devoted viewers that have cycled through the series multiple times will be surprised by certain ideas or images that Seitz observes and discusses at length. The episode “The Suitcase” is a great example of this. Regarded by many Mad Men fans as the best episode of the series, “The Suitcase” takes place mostly in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the late hours as ad executive Don Draper harangues protégé Peggy Olson into working even though it’s her birthday. Many people at the office left long ago to watch the famous Ali-Frazier fight, but the increasingly abusive and unpredictable Don wields control over Peggy, guilting her into stay. Their relationship changes over the night, with Don winding up vulnerable before her. The episode is rich in subtext, dialogue and imagery, but Seitz’s recap for is dedicated to a solitary image so simple and hidden in plain sight yet speaks volumes as to Don and Peggy’s kinship: the act of holding hands.
In the first episode of the series, Peggy, then a fledgling secretary, took hold of Don’s hand after he defended her honor to a slimy co-worker. Don responds coldly to the gesture: “I’m your boss, not your boyfriend.” Peggy’s awkward action may have been inappropriate, but it came as a sincere gesture from her to thank Don. According to Seitz, he responded as he did because “her emotions were so unaffected that they caught Don off guard. Don has abandonment issues and behaves destructively towards people who care about him. He often rejects sincere expressions of affection and squirms in the presence of abject or distraught people. He hates being (or seeming) vulnerable, and is often disgusted by displays of weakness in others.” And yet Don is the one to grab Peggy’s hand at the end of “The Suitcase” because she’s proven she knows Don for who he and still stands beside him. She has seen him at his worst, but stands beside him still. That expression of platonic love is a huge gesture for a man fighting his emotions at every turn. Seitz gets at the heart of why this episode resonates with people, and he expresses it better than anyone else has.
Reading Mad Men Carousel, I envied how new viewers would have the chance to read Seitz’s commentary as they worked their way through the series. Few critics are able to express the deep emotional effect that art has over them in the way that Seitz can. When the series went off the air, viewers said goodbye to more than a beloved series. They said goodbye to some of the most astute and passionate criticism a single series has ever earned.