In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of the return of Mad Men on April 5 for its final seven episodes, we’re looking at some of the show’s most important song selections.
For all its aesthetic thoughtfulness and existential poetry, Mad Men is not the subtlest TV program on the schedule. Like bears and birds of its spiritual predecessor The Sopranos, the show can be thuddingly obvious in its symbolism: Don Draper’s image of California as the unattainable escape. An unthinking machine displacing the creatives at Sterling Cooper And Partners. “It’s not called the wheel—it’s called the carousel.”
Not that Mad Men should be above any of this: It’s still a product of mass media, one that’s partially concerned with pulling the curtain back on the sentimentality and profundity we attach to such insignificant items as baked beans and slide projectors. The art of Mad Men is in the pitch, never in the message. That’s why the best TV show of the past eight years can also be the same show that once depicted Don Draper not getting any satisfaction to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” There he was in season four, a man on my TV telling me how white my shirts can be, but he can’t be a man because he does not smoke the same cigarettes as me—and that’s before Mick Jagger sneers a single lyric during “The Summer Man.”
A season later, Roger Sterling drops acid for the first time, and his psychedelic awakening gets a soundtrack from one of pop music’s most storied psychedelic awakenings: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The title of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” could describe the 1960s experiences of any player on the Mad Men roster, but the story it tells relates specifically to Roger. He’s become increasingly isolated from the people in his life: His family, and then his coworkers, two generations of which have surged past the man whose last name is still in the lobby. Reluctantly attending a dinner party where the bourgeois guests want to see how the counterculture lives, he’s pinned to the sofa while the host quotes Bardo Thodol and the woman in the blue dress paws at the upholstery. Then he opens a bottle of communist vodka, and a Soviet worker’s anthem pours out. Soon, the hostess will flip a switch on a reel-to-reel player, and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” will wrap the character in its contrapuntal tapestry.
Roger’s trip is steeped in cinematic drug-trip clichés, but its trick photography and aural hallucinations are elevated by the emotional honesty behind them: While he’s conversing with an imaginary Don and watching the 1919 World Series from his bathtub, Roger is also participating in the end of his second marriage. Like the introverted journey described in “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” he withdraws, only to find himself alone all over again. Even as “Far Away Places” makes this connection explicit, it still manages to turn out one of Mad Men’s most entertaining meetings of filmmaking, performance, and scoring. That’s one of the show’s many powers: Even when it’s signaling the message from a thousand miles away, the pitch is so good, I hardly even mind.