Or are we giving it too much credit? Look at the characters: A man with a secret past. A dissatisfied wife. A tosspot rich guy. A plucky working gal. It could be Shakespeare; could be a 30s musical. Could be a forgotten novel from 1926 or 1977, a miniseries with Peter Strauss. The characters aren’t new. The plots could be seen as a meandering mess of infidelity and drinking interspersed with vignettes about selling swimsuits. Ordinary. Maybe. But I suspect people will be studying Mad Men long after The Sopranos is considered just another serving of goomba gumbo, and Lost regarded as a long con not even a 300-page wiki can untangle. Three reasons:
1. Don Draper. As played by Jon Hamm, Draper is a throwback archetype — manly, not macho; reticent, confident, with Bond-like skill with the ladies. His life is a series of events built on a lie; he built a new persona out of the bones of a dead man, and clothed it with the things he wanted to become until his new life was as authentic as his old one. He is faithless and stalwart. A drinker but not a drunk. A heel, but not a cruel man. He has a deep instinctive grasp of his profession and the culture in which it thrives, but little insight on himself beyond bleak morning-after reproach.
2. Its setting in the world of advertising, the great collaborative narrative of American culture. You can learn as much about an era from the ads in a magazine as you can from the stories. It’s what we want to have, want to need, want to be — or at least what we think we want. As Don said in the first season:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.
It’s difficult to show the creative process on screen — in movies about composers, they’re always pounding away on big black pianos, scowling, hair in their eyes, Creating! Painters frown at canvases and stab with the brush; novelists stare at a typewriter until the ah-hah moment, then it’s clackety-clack until the brilliant work is complete. Mad Men makes it clear advertising is an art form, complete with a performance before the clients, who might as well be European royalty listening to Salieri go on and on. Skyscrapers, jazz, movies, and advertising: American specialties.
3. The era. The show attracted people with the details of the post-war days, and it got so many things right: the fussy messy decor of the Draper’s suburban house, the sleek modernism of the offices, the rococo interiors of the bars and steak houses. It’s pre-rock — or, more accurately, it depicts a time before rock was the default soundtrack for modern life. It’s square: the free-thinkers, with their turtlenecks and BO and reefer parties and talk about civil rights are still confined to hovels in the Village, and while New York affords them the freedom to pretend they’re the vanguard of a new world, they’re just the latest iteration of the bohos who’ve populated the margins of big cities since Rome was founded.
* * *
The season finale showed everything changing, as it always does. Don is getting married. The firm is still shaky. Roger is skating. Joan is pregnant. The worst doesn’t happen; something better still beckons ahead. Everyone trudges along; another year rolls past. But some things do end, and towards the conclusion of the show we find Betty and Don in the empty kitchen of their marital home. Everything has been stripped away except for a box, a bottle, a glass, and each other. Betty has contrived to be present when Don comes to show the house, because she’s having trouble with her husband and wants attention from Don.
“Everything isn’t perfect,” Betty says. It should be and can be but it isn’t.
“Then you’ll move again,” says Don, and he smiles.
There’s the essence of the show: the culture seems solid from our perspective, but this is America, after all. Pick up and go. Change your name. Roll out a new campaign. Fitzgerald be damned, you can have as many acts in your life as you wish. It’s an optimistic idea — but the show ends with a sleepless Don turning to look out the window of his apartment at the empty room across the alley. His unreadable expression suggests he knows someone will walk through that room and he will be tempted again. The curse of plenty; the lure of more, of the next new thing. It’s perfect in Tomorrowland. But it’s never open today.
Also, wasn’t that California diner great? And Meghan’s dresses are so much sexier than Betty’s.