Monday, October 4, 2010

Dropping Plotlines

Spoilers of Mad Men abound, semi-spoilerish of The Wire

It’s kind of a surprise, for those of us who are both The Wire and Mad Men fans, to realize that both shows have been going on for the same number of seasons. Surprising because while The Wire reached higher heights (and in its fifth season, lower lows. Those who have seen it will suppress a bitter laugh at the phrase “homeless murder subplot.”), Mad Men has been gathering strength for a while now. That’s incredibly impressive, but may prove difficult to sustain because of the difficulty of a writer’s feat: dropping plotlines.

The problem posed by a serial story like this is that its world gradually expands—each character meets or encounters new characters who themselves become important and meet or encounter new characters of their own—threatening narrative bloat. This leaves two options for the writers: an impressive feat of narrative juggling, or periodic ruthless pruning. Mad Men took the former option at the end of season four with its startup-firm idea: we haven’t seen many of the characters from Sterling Cooper go to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and while many of these characters are either hilarious or beloved (e.g. Kinsey and Sal), there’s a reason why the most-cited piece of writerly advice is “murder your darlings”: you really have to reduce the surplus population from time to time.

This has still left technical problems for the show, which has barreled forward by replacing many of the discarded characters with new characters (which is perfectly understandable, given the whole impetus of chucking old characters is to introduce new characters who bring about new scenarios), but nevertheless doesn’t entirely solve the old problem of what to do when you have too many characters.

The Peggy-Abe relationship is probably the perfect example of this phenomenon; I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, and the show unwittingly provided me with another example of the problem. Let’s review: Peggy meets Abe at some Warholish happening, where she is swept off of her feet by a (seemingly-dashing) journalist. Fine; but the plotline is dropped for a while. Upon the next time we see the characters, it’s probably a few months later, in which we’re asked to believe that Abe has been trying to get the right entrĂ©e to Peggy, but hasn’t quite succeeded. It turns out Abe is of that overeager intellectual type and therefore is somewhat awkward; Peggy seems to discard Abe, justifiably so, since he comes off as a bit of a jerk. Flash forward to yesterday’s episode, which we’ll guess is sometime in August or September 1965 (did the Drapers’ trip to Shea Stadium for the Beatles trip happen or no? Last week’s episode seemed to imply it happened the weekend after the events of that episode concluded, but I can’t quite remember for sure and at any rate tonight’s episode made no reference to it), in which, after an awkward meeting between Peggy and Abe, we’re asked to believe they’re actually strongly attracted to each other. The sequence of events somewhat strains credulity, and there’s a simple narrative reason for that: they had to keep dropping that subplot in and out of frame, requiring some hurried improvisatory transition work to justify bringing the plot up again. The plot probably couldn’t be sustained on its own for episode after episode because as of right now it doesn’t have enough narrative propellant; it needed the proper infrastructure work to support it; furthermore given the problems of opportunity cost (there is only an hour per episode) every minute spent on Peggy-Abe necessarily takes a minute from any of the other subplots the writers have to juggle in telling an interesting story about a bunch of confused ad men and women in the 1960s.

I like thinking through things like this because I’m a writer, and one excellent way to learn is to observe people doing the same things you’re trying to do and figure out how they’re doing it. Technically, the show rarely falters in its line-by-line dialogue, but sometimes its strategic vision is less than sharp (which results in missteps). The amount of juggling they have to do is probably a result of missteps: there’s an extra plotline in here somewhere. Is it the Betty-Don plotline (by the way, whatever happened to the tension between the two caused by Betty’s continuing to live in Don’s house? They were supposed to have that dealt with by Christmas 1964.)? Is it something else? I can’t rightly say, because none of them seem wrong per se. But just as the startup firm idea was a great way to resolve a technical challenge (particularly since it fit the characters and their aspirations so well) of how to nullify a bunch of interesting, likable characters, so too do the writers probably have to be more judicious about choosing which plotlines they want to tell. Sometimes, at the best of times, writing is about choosing between good and better (and not both).

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