Spoiler alert: If you aren't current on Mad Men, be aware of thematic and plot revelations in this review. And, if you don't know what Mad Men is, Google it and get busy catching up. Also: Consider where you may have gone wrong in your life.
"Previously on" the Flyer's TV review page: Contemporary scripted TV is our equivalent of masterpieces of fine art. Our museums and galleries are HBO, AMC, Showtime, the basic networks, FX, Netflix, and Hulu. The Sopranos is a Caravaggio; Parks and Recreation is a Keith Haring. Breaking Bad is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Triumph of Death.
Mad Men is an Edward Hopper. It's Nighthawks and Chop Suey and Office in a Small City and Intermission and a dozen more, all rolled into one: gorgeous, perfectly designed, lonely, contemplative, sexy, and gender-inclusive. Creator Matthew Weiner paints Mad Men with pure confident brilliance. Mad Men is social commentary with the benefit of decades of perspective.
The big knock commonly advanced about Mad Men is that nothing much ever happens in the show. The times that the show has truly shocked viewers can probably be counted on one hand: A lawnmower comes to mind, as does a man's severed nipple. But, taking place during the tumultuous history of the 1960s, Mad Men usually prefers to let the big moments happen in the public consciousness and take the personal histories at a more glacial pace. Pacing is actually Mad Men at its most honest: The world may change overnight, but people don't.
Weiner ramped up for Mad Men as a writer on The Sopranos. His episodes, including "Chasing It," "Soprano Home Movies," and "Luxury Lounge," are more sociological, observational, and digressive than most other Sopranos episodes. Weiner never seemed as interested in the big plot points of the New Jersey crime family as he was with what effect this was having on individuals. In Mad Men, he doesn't recreate the scenes of those seismic national events but instead focuses on what they mean for the characters — similar to how author James Ellroy explores "the private nightmare of public policy" in his Underworld USA trilogy.
Last Sunday, Mad Men's Season 7 signed off until 2015 with "Waterloo," a half-season finale in the middle of a bifurcated final round of episodes. (Don't get me started about how annoying a network ploy this is.) But, at this point, I'm ready to stop debating if Mad Men is the best show of all time: It almost doesn't matter what happens in the show's final seven episodes, Mad Men has surpassed other great hour-long shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, M*A*S*H, Breaking Bad, and whatever else is presumptively the title-holder. (And comparing the relative value of dramas versus comedies is too difficult and too dependent on preferences. Apples to apples, I'll take Parks and Recreation over any other comedy and Mad Men over any other drama.)
Until late in Season 7, Mad Men hadn't yet tipped its hand about ultimate intentions: Is it a show about things falling apart or coming together? As "Waterloo" ends, things are hopeful. Don finally has the inclination and means to simply do and enjoy his work. Sally picked the earnest nerd over the cynical football player. Peggy found her voice. Things may change again in the second half of the season. Mad Men might do its thematic version of the Altamont Free Concert. Either way, it's a cultural alchemy that is a joy to behold.
Watching Mad Men isn't like watching paint dry, it's like watching a great painting dry: Hopper's Morning Sun oxidizing into immortality.