There are two approaches to writing about Mad Men. Number one: this is a serious show about America and I am a serious person so I will think about what it all means. As in:
“Maybe it’s not all about work,” Dr. Miller says to Don Draper at the start of “Tomorrowland,” the end of the latest Mad Men season. It’s good advice. Like every other piece of good advice, you suspect Don will hear it, understand it — and ignore it. A man is his work, isn’t he? You can step away tomorrow. Tomorrow you can go to California, to Disneyland.
The second approach:
Did you not just love it when Peggy stomped into Joanie’s office after getting the news about Don and grabbed a cigarette and vented? She’s mad at Don for stealing her limelight again of course, but was that heartbreak in her face when she realized he was in L-O-V-E? And then there was Betsy’s awesome coat at the end when she was in the house with Don alone. She’s always so put together, even when she’s falling apart!
They’re both correct, which explains the show’s appeal. It’s a thoughtful disquisition on the days before the counterculture began its transformation of the post-war order, and also a soap with exquisite production values.
Also a long sodden hymn to drinking. Oh, we see the blackouts, the barfing, the hangovers, but the show still loves its drinking. When Don finds a bottle in the back of a cabinet in a house he hasn’t lived in for a long time, the audience grins: it’s like he’s a magician who can conjure whiskey out of nowhere! No, he just hid bottles. The iTunes version of the show, for example, always encourages the viewer to download the “Mad Men Cocktail Culture” app for your smartphone. It sounds like Dungeons and Dragons for hipsters. A Level Six Client is attacking your presentation! What do you do? You cast the dice, consult the rules, and it says “go to your office and drink straight liquor.” That’s probably the Cocktail Culture answer for everything, right? Drink, smoke, look good in a Brooks Brother suit with a skinny tie or a chic dress, trade repartee, listen to Brubeck on the stereophonic record player. Be one of those people the hippies killed off. Be swank. Be sharp.
This was the appeal of Mad Men when it premiered — unapologetic daytime substance abuse, old-line patriarchal values with a splash of va-va-voom sexiness, Joanie’s hips ringing back and forth like the toll of the Liberty Bell. The rough beast of Betty Friedan was still slouching towards New Rochelle to be born. Kennedy was alive. The jet-age was blending into the space-age. You could not only smoke, but smoke indoors. Hats and girdles. It was everything we were told was horrible about the past — but they all seemed so adult. Not because they had more freedom, but because they had less. They might not have liked what they had to be, but they knew what was expected.
Naturally, this led to dress-up parties. People got together and wore vintage clothing and drank and enjoyed the show with like-minded fans, just as people got together during Twin Peaks and ate donuts and drank damn-good coffee. If Mad Men was just a primetime soap with campy overtones, this might have made more sense. But it’s like dressing up in Louis XVI-era garments to enjoy a show about the days when the monarchy was dissolved. It’s all fun and games until someone loses a client, or a head. In fact it’s not all fun and games at all.
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.