Have you ever noticed we don't see any of the weddings in Mad Men? Well, we get to see one: the wreckage of Margaret Sterling's disastrous reception on the evening of JFK's assassination. But there are four weddings of four main characters that don't make it to celluloid: Roger Sterling marries baby Jane, Joan Holloway marries Greg Harris, Betty Draper marries Henry Francis, and Don Draper marries Megan Calvet — all off screen.
Joan and Greg get married between Season 2 and 3. Roger and Jane get married between Seasons 3 and 4, as do Betty and Henry. Between Season 4's finale, "Tomorrowland," where Don spontaneously proposes to ingénue Megan, and Season 5's premiere "A Little Kiss," where Megan shimmies through her cringeworthy "Zou Bisou Bisou" burlesque for Don's 40th birthday, seven months have passed on the show. But what we've got to remember is that two years passed between the airing of Season 4 and Season 5 — time that made us forget the newness and awkwardness of Don's impetuous engagement. We left "Tomorrowland" thinking that an explanation — or at least, a firestorm — was just around the corner. When the show suddenly jumps ahead to the nouveau-Draper's newly-wedded bliss, you realize that you've been robbed of the best reactions (wouldn't you kill to see Betty's hearing about their engagement? Her perfect face icy and stoic, her engorged hand gripping her avocado phone until the receiver broke in two...). And when you skip all the messiest parts, it accomplishes a lot of strange, subtle things I didn't pick up on the first time around.
So why would creator Matthew Weiner deny us all the juicy drama and chaos of these weddings? First, the uneven, unpredictable time jumps mean we viewers are always a little unmoored at the beginning of a season. We're left to pick up on changes in office dynamics, shifts in relationships, and cohabitation milestones on our own. (Mad Men is a notoriously intellectual show, always trusting its audience to infer, never spoon-feeding.) In Season 5's opener "A Little Kiss," Joan returns from maternity leave to an office she's afraid has forgotten her. She laments, "I just keep thinking about what's going on here and I missed it too much...Something always happens. Things are different. Somebody tells a joke and you don't know what they're talking about." Joanie, we feel that way, too. Who are these unexplained characters, how do they feel about each other; what has happened in this interlude?
— time has not stood still; Sterling Cooper did not stop to wait for us. And this contributes so significantly to the sense of realism, the knowledge that we only ever get glimpses, little tableaus, into the vast, layered off-screen lives of these characters. Our voyeurism stops between seasons; their lives keep going. That means even though we don't always get to see the big stuff, we'd better pay attention to the quiet, little moments that show us lots.
These big time jumps also manage to avoid the — yes, I'll say it — tedium of an on-screen wedding. Ever since Shakespeare, the wedding has been the ubiquitous staple of screen comedy. It's the hallmark of the rom com, whether as the culmination or the backdrop, and is grossly overused as a dramatic device. And when is a wedding a source of entertainment? Why, only when it goes badly, of course. Weddings are their own sort of Chekhov's gun — we don't set them up unless there's a very real possibility they're going to go wrong.
Don't you see? If we saw Roger and Jane's wedding, we'd spend the whole episode crossing our fingers that they weren't going to go through with it. If we saw Joan and Greg get married, we'd just be waiting for a sauced Sterling to bounce up from his seat and wryly object that he would move mountains and earth for Joan — two very visible mountains of hers in particular! Wink, slurp.
And Don and Megan — their impulsive relationship so tenuous, so unexplained, so utterly bizarre (who IS she?) — if we saw them get married, it would be an entire episode about whether fat Betty was going to plow down the aisle waiving the Dick Whitman shoe box, or whether horrid pubescent Sally would accidentally light Megan's train on fire with a stolen cigarette (from Glenn, of course), or whether Anna's ghost would hover in the background approvingly clapping while Beatles songs sent the smooth-faced Campbells into a frenzied foxtrot. Every step down the aisle is a chance for a change of heart, a groping hand from the audience, a church door to slam open with an unmistakable "Elaine!"
And when you think about it, omitting the weddings makes for way more interesting drama. What's compelling, really, is when the loud reactions have subsided into murmuring gossip, the excitement has quieted, the house has been furnished, the new rugs delivered, and the controversial husband and wife are left looking at each other, really each other, for a moment of "what have we done?" What's important is not what Megan's swinging French-chic, ultra-mini-mini wedding dress would've looked like, it's that Megan doesn't know what everyone who's ever met Don knows: he doesn't want a surprise party, especially not one that celebrates his adopted birthday from his stolen identity. What's compelling is when Joan is left alone without her always-something-wrong-with-this-picture deployed husband, missing the office and losing her identity. What's interesting is how Betty forces her new husband to sleep in Don's bed and eat at his table long after Don has gone. It's moments like these, the small ones, the glances in the mirror, the last cigarette of the day, the restless stirring when your partner is asleep, that tell us who these people are.
Though I'd have, like, killed somebody to see Megan Draper's wedding dress.
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