Think Thrice, It's Alright: Mad Men's "The Wheel" and the Future Study of Television Narratives
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Think Thrice, It's Alright:
Mad Men's "The Wheel" and the Future Study of Television Narratives
ABSTRACT

This article discusses three strategies that TV shows have increasingly employed in recent years to produce what Jason Mittell, in an essay that marked the beginning of his thoughts on the issue, has called "narrative complexity": unreliable narration, counterfictional scenarios, and ellipses and anachronological narration. It uses the last minutes of "The Wheel," the final episode of the first season of AMC's Mad Men (2007–15), as its primary example. More specifically, this article proposes three different interpretations of the final moments of that episode. These readings have in common that they underline one of Mittell's central claims, namely that serial television shifts comprehension processes toward conscious hypotheses in what he describes as "operational aesthetic." However, the article will also assume a broader perspective throughout and demonstrate that the three interpretations it develops are instances of more widely spread phenomena that merit far more attention than a single article can provide. Thus, the article offers, on the one hand, a close reading of an episode of Mad Men against the background of the early seasons of the show, but, on the other, it also identifies three topics for further fruitful research on television narrative more generally.

KEYWORDS

counterfictionality, Mad, Men, narrative complexity, narrative temporality, television series, unreliable narration

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ANY STUDY concerned with the narrative strategies of contemporary television shows must currently take as its point of departure Jason Mittell's Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, which provides an analysis of TV narratives against the background of shifts in technology, industry organization, audiences, and viewing practices. Mittell discusses, among many other issues, the functions and strategies of pilot episodes and the different possibilities to develop or at least elaborate characters, devotes a chapter to the ways in which audiences make sense of what they are presented with on the screen, taking into account differences in viewing practices arising from diverse media devices, and investigates transmedial storytelling, that is, the ways in which some shows have, in recent years, employed the internet but also more traditional media such as the novel to expand their storyworlds. In fact, Mittell's analysis is so thorough that it might, at first glance, seem that there is very little to add. But since he has the big picture in mind—a veritable poetics of twenty-first century TV drama and comedy, as the subtitle of his book promises—Mittell occasionally has to restrict himself to mentioning, rather than fully exploring, specific narrative strategies. Moreover, and quite naturally, even he cannot cover everything. This is where the present article sets in.

In the following, I discuss three strategies that TV shows have increasingly employed in recent years to produce what Mittell, in an essay that marked the beginning of his thoughts on the issue, has called "narrative complexity": unreliable narration, counterfictional scenarios (I will explain what that is below), and ellipses and anachronological narration. I will use the ending of "The Wheel," the final episode of the first season of AMC's Mad Men (2007–15), as my primary example. More specifically, I will propose three different interpretations of that episode's final moments. Ultimately, these readings have in common that they underline one of Mittell's central claims, namely that "serial television [. . .] shift[s] comprehension processes from preconscious assumptions and inferences to conscious hypotheses. [. . .] [V]iewers engage with complex television through the operational aesthetic, which we can understand as the conscious accumulation, analysis, and hypothesizing of information concerning how the story is told" (Complex TV 169–70). However, I will also assume a broader perspective throughout, demonstrating that what I observe as occurring in "The Wheel" are indeed more widely spread phenomena that merit far more thorough attention than I can provide in this article. Thus, my article provides, on the one hand, a close reading of an episode of Mad Men against the background of the early seasons of the show, but, on the other, it also identifies three topics for further fruitful research on television narrative more generally.

Obviously, the narrative strategies I am concerned...


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