Sunday TV in my house was a ritual in the early 2000’s, when my parents deemed I was old enough to watch The Sopranos: my dad would get home from work at a reasonable time, my sister and I would excuse ourselves from the friends we were hanging out with, my mother would cook a big dinner of sausage and peppers and polenta. We’d all make a feeble grasp at connecting with our Italian heritage—one of my father’s cherished past-times—and gather around the television to spend an hour together, once a week.
The only Sunday shows I follow now are Mad Men and Game of Thrones. When those air, usually my dad isn’t home yet. My sister spends those hours and most others in her room, and my mom falls asleep on the couch and catches up on DV-R around 6am. Sometimes we hash through what happened and who we hate most (Joffrey and Don) while I sift through the fridge for something I can call breakfast or lunch, but more often than not none of us are home at the same time to talk anymore.
Even though the Sopranos, in whatever piece of emotional alchemy it managed to formulate, had the power to make my family care about the same thing for 1/168th of a week, last night’s Mad Men made me realize the power of a show has nothing to do with inspiring a sense of community, but in forcing individual interpretation through silence, lingering, the absence of traditional dramatic stimuli.
Nothing could be more antithetical to Game of Thrones’ strategy of jumping between plot points to maintain a constant, over-compressed torrent of sex, yelling, and death. I came away from last night’s episode feeling entertained the way I would by a very good webgame: superficially invested, but mostly relishing the opportunity to be immediately gratified for minimal effort.
Whereas the deafeningly loud turn of this week’s Game of Thrones was Jaime’s reformation, evidenced by his saving Brienne from an actual bear in some sort of ridiculous gladiatorial arena, Mad Men’s was Don and his current extramarital fling Sylvia silently standing in an elevator. That’s all. She had just broken off their affair after Don went a step too far in exploiting her crumbling marriage, turning a hotel room into their bizarre sex dungeon. She takes a stand and we see Don beg—for sex, for her continued submission to him, or because he’s been forced to admit he’s emotionally invested—which, for a person as invested in appearing ‘strong’ as he is, is almost sickening to watch.
“It’s easy to give up something when you’re satisfied,” Don bargains. Sylvia retorts, “It’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed.” And that should rightfully be the end of their interaction, but after a brief Joan scene in the boardroom of the newly merged company, we cut back to Don and Sylvia riding the elevator down. It’s something so simple but so vital: two people sharing space, each feeling a different kind of sadness. These are the circumstances under which strangers in movies become lovers, but here it’s the long, slow, terribly quiet descent into the estranged. They only people who would be able to understand their turmoil are themselves, the same people who would gain nothing by saying any more about it.
“What did you think of Don last night,” my mom will ask. “What an asshole,” I’ll say microwaving some leftovers. I’ll eat in my room.
TV is no longer a communal activity, in my house and in most houses, because we’ve focused our attention on being able to customize our entertainment consumption to our own schedules and tastes. Other people watch what you watch, but the reasons for talking about it with them seem less tangible. It’s not my intention to moralize and weigh the pros and cons of watching shows on your laptop in bed. What I can say is that Mad Men—perhaps unintentionally—is taking advantage of the way most people consume media now, by giving us scenes that feel too personal to be shared.