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Mad Men is at its funniest and most surreal when its main character isn't around

Don and Betty don't really get all that wacky all that often.
Don and Betty don't really get all that wacky all that often.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Dylan Matthews: I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking that serious prestige TV is getting a lot less funny. I actually think The Americans gets a bum rap as humorless — Henry Jennings's recreation of "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" is some of the best cringe comedy I've seen in years — but Game of Thrones is definitely of the opinion that Tyrion's occasional one-liners are all the levity it ever needs. The really bad offender here is Hannibal, a show I love — and know you do, too, Todd — but that couldn't tell a joke to save its life. It's a terrific psychological thriller, but there's a limit to how much you can develop characters when all of their conversations center around murder most foul.

And there are basically no shows in recent years apart from Mad Men that are attempting the Coen Brothers/David Lynch style of surrealistic dark humor that you isolate. It's definitely Lynch by way of David Chase, but for all of The Sopranos' dream sequences it could never pull off something as downright whimsical as the roller-skating sequence, or over-the-top performative like Peggy's strut down the McCann hallway.

I guess my big question is how pervasive this tone has really been on the show. Part of the huge fan reaction to "Lost Horizon" is due to the fact that Peggy's moments were just very well done and would impress on any show. But here, it felt like they stuck out more because they didn't feel like the show, because they seemed like a rare deviation from its usual understated (if you like the show) or dull (if you don't) tone.

Same goes for a lot of the show's previous flights of fancy. Remember "The Crash," where the staffers of Sterling Cooper & Partners get a mystery drug injected into their butts for some reason? Of course you do, because while the rest of season six bleeds together (some drama with Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough here, some Don romps with Sylvia Rosen there, etc.) its one deviation into surrealism sticks out.

Same goes for even less-dramatic examples: Pete Campbell boxing Lane Pryce, Don's California hallucination about Megan, Roger's marriage-ending acid trip, "My name is Peggy Olsen and I would like to smoke some marijuana." These stick out, in a good way, from the rest of the show. Twin Peaks, to pick a foil, isn't like that. Some episodes are weirder than others, but they all feel of a piece. The strangest scenes aren't aberrations. When Dale Cooper is in a red room with a backward-talking dwarf in "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer," it doesn't feel out of place. Of course that's what Dale Cooper dreams about; what else would he?

Trying to imagine a Mad Men where roller-skating Peggy was the rule rather than the exception is a fun exercise, especially in the early seasons. Betty's gradual realization that her marriage was trapping her would be played much campier, like a Douglas Sirk movie; Don's flashbacks would be much less literal and much more dreamlike (perhaps they'd take the form of literal dreams); characters like Pete would be either much more clearly villainous, or much more clearly oafs. It'd be a totally different show, in other words. The core of Mad Men is Don, and Don, for better or worse, plays things straight. It's not an accident that surreal Mad Men is a show populated mostly by non-Don characters like Peggy or Roger or high, tap-dancing Ken Cosgrove. Don doesn't fit into that world.

That's the best case for the "nine parts normal, one part weird" strategy that Matthew Weiner has opted for. By gradually ramping up the surrealism over the seasons, while keeping Don constant, the cultural and societal changes being depicted come into sharper focus. But the case against is evidenced in our reaction to "Lost Horizon." When that one part weird comes along, fans rejoice. It's a major part of what they — we — watch the show for. Maybe it's a problem, looking back, that it wasn't really a major part of the show itself.

Read the recap, and check back tomorrow for final thoughts from Libby.

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