Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mad Men vs. Game of Thrones (part II of) Part 2

Life is a state of Mad Men, with Game of Thrones always creeping in. Mad Men, recreating an era of ersatz American perfection which turned out to be a prison from which America had to escape, and doing so with its own claustrophobic perfection.

Endings are tricky, they're much easier to do well when the show was flawed, because the show can then be about the ending itself. Was there any truly great TV show, or great novel, that landed its ending on a level as estimable as the rest of it? Any story longer than the story itself is not about capturing the story, but the passing of life itself. The passing of life and time can't simply end (unless it's The Sopranos), it has to wind down and show that life still goes on even if we don't see it. 

Mad Men was a victim of its own achievements. It was, in my firm opinion, the greatest TV Drama that ever there was, or ever there could be. But subjecting that level of examination to life as it happens, to 'lifeness', can never be sustained forever. Just as life seems to, the story can go on forever, even if we're not around for it. But in the real world, every story has to end, and it's almost a given that a story that so deeply questions what pure life experience is made of will have no idea how to correctly land its ending, because no person has seen their end and lived to tell us what it's like. There was only one appropriate ending for Mad Men, and it was already used by The Sopranos. 

The final half-season of Mad Men was perhaps its weakest. It did not end with a bang, it simply wound down to an ending that is completely in keeping with the tone of the show itself, yet it felt completely wrong at the same time. To see the shock of Don Draper becoming a fervent follower of an Ashram is so banal, so petty in comparison to the mythic man he once was, that it diminishes this larger-than-life figure to smallness. It leaves a horrible taste in our mouths that we've been following ten years in the life of a man we thought was of mythic dimension, only for him to confess his sins and in his first moment of true vulnerability, show that he's just a human as gullible as the next person. And yet, in keeping with history, in keeping with the tone of the show, it's still absolutely perfect. 

Mad Men is a study in the glories, and the limitations, of perfection. It is as flawless a work of art as has ever been created, but its flawlessness is its flaw. It's a prison from which the only escape is to ignore it. By Season 5, their best in my humble opinion, the world no longer cared about Mad Men. It had moved on to Game of Thrones. Mad Men is about trying to grasp the mysteries of human personality, Game of Thrones is about showing us how cheap human life is. Mad Men is a work whose creator is a single authority who allowed no compromise to his vision and no telegraph as to what was in store. Game of Thrones is a work defined by collaboration, whose plot is developed in concert with the original novelist whose work half the audience already knew from the books before it's shown on TV, and whose work may further be developed by suggestions from the audience. Mad Men is meant as a work of Art with a capital A, Game of Thrones is a work of awful magnificence, but like so many works of great art, it is primarily intended as entertainment. Mad Men is a micro snapshot of our world and history, Game of Thrones is a macro panoramic view of an historical world that isn't even our own. Mad Men deals in perfection, Game of Thrones deals in the infinite. 

Perfection is a prison from which the life force which is nature has to escape. The classical age of TV is over. Mad Men is our Mozart, our Leonardo, our young Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Jean Renoir. The elegance, the naturalism, the formal perfection, is so finely honed that the only way forward is to smash the rules it sets out into a million pieces. In the control which the showrunner has, Mad Men recalls the Hollywood's Golden Age of the Director, when Coppola and Scorsese and Altman could fulfil a genuine artistic vision. But in its achievement, perhaps Mad Men goes even past Coppola and Scorsese, with their concessions to potboilerdom, and is an achievement to rival great figures from the Golden Age of World Cinema - Renoir, Ozu, Ray, DeSica, Bergman and others of similarly gilded eminence to the World of Great Art. Except perhaps for Altman and Bogdanovich, no director from America's Golden Age mined the problems of real people so deeply.  

But maybe great art needs that potboiler aspect to it. We are as much dust as divinity, and without the ability to be entertained, who will pay attention? Even I can admit that Mad Men had its dull, even wooden moments that didn't ring true at all. Perfection is an enclosed space from which by definition, you can't reach higher than its limitations. But when the White Walkers come spilling into Hardhome like latter day devils making their first inroads into Elysium, when Ned Stark is senselessly beheaded in front of his family, when Daenerys Targaryen emerges alive like a goddess from the fire - completely nude with baby dragons on her shoulders, when a condemned Tyrion Lannister curses the entire audience of the showtrial his father convened to have him killed, when Oberyn Martell's head smashes like a falling melon, when half the remaining Starks are butchered when they finally recover from the loss of their patriarch, when Stannis Baratheon - TV's Macbeth, or King Saul - literally sacrifices his daughter to fire as a last desperate attempt to fulfill his ambition, you realize that you're dealing with a different, wholly more potent and terrible, kind of sublimity. Mad Men merely hints at this horrific, warnographic sublimity in its 2nd to last episode when an Oklahoma WWII veteran alludes to his brief dalliance with cannibalism on the Western Front. Game of Thrones stands, perhaps lesserly, but still very much present, in the tradition of Beethoven, Michelangelo, older Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Orson Welles. It grasps at the infinite, and goes higher and further into the sublime than Mad Men ever could. It's strong evidence, like Dostoevsky and Shakespeare at his worst, that only works that sink so low can rise so high. No amount of absurd, bad, or trashy scenes can take away the horrific and disgusting greatness Game of Thrones has achieved. 

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