Culture

Scotch and Soda: TV’s Mad Men Concludes

If there’s one thing you can take away from the Mad Men finale, it’s this: the lipsyncing was really bad in that Coke commercial.

Before the last show ran, AMC played a montage of key scenes with sappy “Do You Remember (the highlights of Your Life)” that drenched the show in tear-jerking awwww sap — even though half the shots they chose were, at the time, underlaid with some sort of unhappiness or doubt. It’s almost as if the show was intended to be one thing, and was received as another. It’s almost as if AMC wanted us to see it that way. Remember when Don and Megan kissed on his birthday at the party? DO YOU REMEMMMMMBER? Yeah, I remember he was mortified by her sexy song.

So: Happy endings. For everyone!  Well, except for Betty. Roger’s about to learn you can’t cure crazy, but for now it’s fun. (The scene where he stalked out of the bedroom trailing a sheet like a wedding train reminds you how funny the show was, and how much of that humor came from Roger.) Joan is successful, even though you have to wonder what exactly she did except glare imperiously. Peggy found True Love through a charming but not entirely credible sequence. Pete’s starring in a get-up-and-go airline commercial.

All the wounds were stanched and cauterized, and Dick / Don, fused into one happy person, gets one more chance and creates something enduring. If, that is, you believe that he went back. I hope so. If a show that celebrated the mid-century style ended up in a hippie commune where Enlightenment is yours if you just sit cross-legged and polish your peace — it’s depressing, really. It suggests that Don was such an crackled vessel he could be filled with anything when he’d finally drained and patched the leaks. None of the other roles satisfied him. The job, the father, the wastrel, the penitent — all stops on the journey to the hillside where we left him. If you want him to stay, you can believe that he does. If you want him to go back, you can imagine he did. Dick Whitman might want to buy the world a Coke. Don Draper wanted to sell it to them.

Charity event for the high school last year: Mad Men cocktail party. Come in MM garb! Drink MM drinks! Pretend to smoke! (Fake cigarettes with glowing tips were provided.) The host poured Old Fashioneds with a heavy hand. The husbands looked dull. The wives looked fantastic.

At the time the show was between 1969 and 1970, but no one dressed like that. Mad Men meant something else: the time before the Fall, if you’re inclining to see the groovy times as the Great Disaster; the bad old days, if you like a binary view of history that sees the rise of the counterculture as the birth of goodness. To go to a Mad Men party was to inhabit all the things the show so painstakingly revealed, enjoyed, condemned, and left behind.

When it first began, the unapologetic depiction of smoking and drinking was . . . shocking, which shows how the libertines ended up imposing their own sort of puritanism.  It was bracing to see a bunch of people who had a Problem with booze, but were never confronted about the matter because everyone else knocked back a fifth between noon and quitting time (which was at 3), and everyone did okay because they had money and the right attitude, and high-profile arty TV wants to save the barf-stain-on-the-tie moment for a particularly dramatic scene. For all the excesses no one seemed to have much fun; Roger Sterling, the most amusing and untroubled soul on the show, floated through the offices with an air of disregard for the business and himself. Everyone busied their lives with the small things that didn’t matter — oh, who will present the Playtex account? — and avoided the big things that didn’t.

That could be any TV show, but Mad Men was different. The period was critical to its early acclaim, but the show made its mark with the quality of its writing, the leisurely delineation of its characters. The soap-opera aspect was the  least compelling side of the show. Most of the relationships counted for naught and costed a lot. Passion gutters out, eyes roam, things break, checks are cut. But still people on the internet behaved as if there was some complex, fascinating narrative playing out — ooh, Megan is ascendant, they’re going to California, how will Don react? Look at her T-shirt in that scene — is that a hint she will be killed by Charles Manson? Fans seemed to invest themselves into story lines that were just contrails, drawn and picked apart by the wind.

The characters made us return. A troubled bunch. Striving and unsatisfied no matter what. The fact that we liked Peggy was a tribute to Elizabeth Moss, because Peggy was a pill. Pete Campbell was a weasel you were always glad to see, thanks to Vince Kartheiser’s skill at bringing out the comic side of a man who was a walking, talking toothache. And so on.

If you want to hate the show, think of this: It presented the era in which the Boomers grew up, the base clay of sexism and patriarchy from which they sprang.  Look how retrograde mom and dad really were. It let Boomers enjoy all the excesses and admire, perhaps, an era of hats and dresses — while still tut-tutting at all the things that were wrong. You could have your Scotch and drink it too.

But that’s unfair. If they hold a Mad Men party in a few years, it won’t be hippie-garb with bad shirts and OMMMM chants. It’ll be hats and smokes, dresses and drinks. That’s not what the show was about, but it’s what everyone will remember. They sold us something it really wasn’t, and we discovered we liked it anyway. Don Draper would have approved — then wondered what next we might want to buy.

Related: Ed Driscoll writes, Mad Men Blessedly Comes to a Conclusion.