Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.

Much like The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad before it, I came to Mad Men far too late.

A good friend of mine, someone who has spent over a decade begging me to engage with the show, repeatedly explained that the series was ‘slow burn’. While this didn’t entirely put me off, it for a long time gave me pause. I have always gravitated to television, and cinema, where narrative is propulsive and complicated, and we are left breathless as the story sweeps us into one twist after another. On the surface, Mad Men is not that kind of series, yet when you scratch beneath it, the opposite turns out to be true. In a reflection of the depth and layered detail in Don Draper, Mad Men is itself driven by rich, complicated characters—far more of an ensemble than The Sopranos in many ways—who provide that sense of narrative fulfilment in perhaps a more satisfying way than many a plot driven series.

Honestly, on a personal level, I am glad that I am experiencing shows like this now, as a man approaching 39. Not that age matters but after many years soaking up television and cinema, learning and developing my own writing and theory and knowledge, being able to enjoy work like Mad Men feels all the more rewarding from a position where I can not only welcome the inspirations, and visualise what it inspired, but also enjoy it for what it is as opposed to what it isn’t. I regret not being there on a weekly basis during the points it aired, being part of the theorising and speculation (my favourite is the theory that Don would become the legendary D. B. Cooper by the end), but watching in a two month binge with my wife, and swopping theories and discussing meaning with her, has been a different kind of reward.

That’s a key factor with Mad Men: it allows you the space to wonder. It is never entirely ambiguous but, as Matt Zoller Seitz puts it in his crucial companion text Mad Men Carousel (seriously, get it and do a rewatch with it in hand), the series contains a “dream logic” which sees it exist on a series of levels and subtexts that will reward rewatching. Honestly, in a few years, I can’t wait to engage with this show again, knowing the journey Don and the characters around him take, and make those connections. Indeed, Mad Men Carousel contains an entire added series of notes designed for people doing a rewatch, which go deep on the multi-layered connections and foreshadowing and subtextual aspects which are not there on a first watch.

Mad Men, as Seitz also says in that book, is “built to last”.

A major reason I almost immediately fell in love with the show lies in not just the attention to detail, but the scope of its period trappings.

Set in the advertising agency Don works for, Sterling Cooper, the show begins in the year 1960 and positions Don as, theoretically, the American ideal. Weiner was inspired heavily in the style and iconography by Alfred Hitchcock’s American work, such as Vertigo (see the Saul Bass title sequence of the ad man’s black silhouette falling from a roof) but particularly North by Northwest where Cary Grant channels his inner James Bond (despite prefiguring the cinematic incarnation of the character) at the tail end of the 1950s. Hamm, in every way, is Grant-esque from that film; bryllcreamed black hair, immaculately tailored, handsome in the perfect matinee idol way, and brooding, quiet and poised. Don is James Bond (the finale of Season 5 even ends to the tune of Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice). He’s what every man would want to be leaving the ‘50s, and what every woman would want.

He is also married to a beautiful blonde in Betty, played by the always stunning January Jones, and she too—aesthetically—represents the perfect complement. She is graceful, ostensibly charming, and epitomises the stay at home mother in an age of American prosperity in the post-WW2 boom years. They live in a house with all the mod-coms of the era, with two beautiful young children, in a leafy suburb. Don goes to work in his smart suit while Betty waits patiently for his return. It is the dream of prosperity, the ideal as America entered the 1960s of what white America strove toward, encapsulated in the advertising industry, designed to sell Americans on their dreams. Stability, success, modernity and freedom. Yet immediately, Weiner explores the dark side, the underbelly. Don in Marriage of Figaro avoids his daughters birthday and sits in his car drinking, pondering suicide. Betty in the pilot asks her sleeping husband “who are you?”, having spent years kept at an emotional distance.

The show slowly and surely decrypts these initial perfections from there.

Don turns out to be hiding an existential secret, that the advertising man with the golden touch, a legend in his field coveted by McCann-Erickson—the biggest firm in the business—is secretly selling the one thing he doesn’t purport to: himself.

Don is an illusion, created after Korean War veteran Dick Whitman accidentally got his XO, the real Donald Draper, killed in an accident and on rotating out of service, kept the man’s name, became part of his widow’s life as a quasi-replacement, and reinvented himself as a success who charmed the wealthy daughter of a middle-class family. Weiner very early on suggests the dream, the aspiration that by the era of Tony Soprano has descending into an ugly reflection of corrupted capitalist excess, is a falsehood. Don is smoke and mirrors, and he too knows it. It is what he wrestles with in every episode. It is what sees him destroy his own life, and career, time and time again. He is that impending corruption that, in macrocosm, will envelope American society.

Mad Men then parallels Don’s slow decryption and disintegration across seven seasons with the societal and cultural fluctuations in America which play out behind the soapy Sterling-Cooper advertising drama, and the peaceful stability of the post-war boom years give way to major counter-cultural and civil rights unrest. Nixon vs Kennedy frames the 1960 Presidential battle in terms of Don’s own struggle between liberal and conservative values (Don, for all his toxicity, is never a racist or bigot, if at times he is drawn into sexism); The Grown-Ups later immerses us in the assassination of JFK in 1963 as our characters react within their own microcosm to what this means for America and their own futures; while The Flood echoes the death of Martin Luther King in 1968.

It doesn’t get everything right – it has often a blind spot on race and representation for the black community, though I sense Weiner often intentionally places them as servile maids or butlers etc… to underscore the white privilege of Mad Men’s upper middle class world, and does attempt to include black characters later with some level of characterisation – but these enormous political ructions only form part of the tapestry of how Mad Men expressly confronts a decade which shaped the America, and the Western world, we know today.

Matthew Weiner has talked about why he chose to set Mad Men in this era:

[E]very time I would try and find something interesting that I wanted to do, it happened in 1960. It will blow your mind if you look at the year on the almanac. And it’s not just the election [of JFK]. The pill came out in March 1960, that’s really what I wanted it to be around.… That’s the largest change in the entire world. Seriously, it’s just astounding. Especially if you look at the movies from the 50s. Once it was acceptable to talk about this idea that teenagers were having sex, which they have been doing, obviously, since time immemorial, there were all these movies like Blue Denim and Peyton Place.… [T]he central tension in every movie that does not take place on the battlefield is about a girl getting pregnant. So all of a sudden that entire issue [of pregnancy] has been removed from society. That was what I was interested in in 1960.

These events form the backdrop of a show which is about a group of characters who react to the 1960s, what it promises and how it disappoints, in a variety of ways. You witness them change, adapt, and in some cases stand still, over these ten years thanks to some remarkable writing and stunning performances.

While the show belongs to Hamm, arguably one step behind him is Elizabeth Moss in her career defining performance as Peggy Olson.

In some sense, she is the classic narrative trope of the audience’s way into a situation and place in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, the pilot, as she arrives fresh-faced in 1960 as Don’s impressionable new secretary, and her ambition steadily tracks with the changing role of women across the decade. Peggy swiftly decides being Don’s work maid/wife is not enough; she wants to learn from him, become him in one sense, and so begins probably the most affecting and beautifully constructed relationships in the series, and maybe ever on television. The Suitcase, as Don reaches one of his lowest ebbs and Peggy serves as the closest thing to a Jennifer Melfi he would ever entertain, is a stunning piece of drama that encapsulates their hard to pigeonhole friendship, relationship and dynamic.

Peggy is not solely defined by Don, it’s important to point out. Moss injects her with strength, pathos and black humour as she psychologically buries the birth of a child who she rejects to pursue a career that runs against the accepted grain of society, and her mother’s expectations. That the child happens to be the result of a tryst with Pete Campbell, an account man who consistently stands as Mad Men’s most loathsome character (brilliantly portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser), adds to the impact. Pete wants to be Don, both in how he is regarded in his profession and with the fairer sex, but has no idea that he has the family unit and security Don self-destructs with Betty and his children. Mad Men is filled with characters who struggle to see the limits of their circumstances, and vacillate between numerous states of being as they are influenced by the world around them.

Look at Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks. The central administrator of Sterling-Cooper, she is sassy, outwardly strong and begins defined by the limitations placed on her by society, and the gaggle of entitled, toxic ‘50s males (men such as Pete or Ken Cosgrove & Harry Crane) who work around her. Joan is Marilyn for many, a voluptuous symbol of female sexuality, and she has worked to cultivate that as a means of survival. In the pilot, she tells Peggy that her aspiration should be to meet a man who will mean she never has to work anymore. Peggy embraces the ‘60s and steadily breaks free of these expectations, which only serves to make Joan more aware of her own. The motherhood she embraces threatens to stymie her until she fights to assert her own independence, compromising her own morals in The Other Woman to do so.

While Mad Men centres around Don’s angst, it builds an ensemble around him who grapple with their own forms of identity as the decade around them twists and forms itself into new shapes and sizes that challenge their pre-existing roles. Ken Cosgrove evolves into the kind of family man Don might never be. Roger Sterling (a wonderfully louche and charming John Slattery) struggles to break free of his natural old money entitlement that has served him all his life, drinking and smoking his way through multiple health scares and keeping the flame burning of an on-off romance with Joan. Thanks to Slattery, Roger is funny and likeable when his selfishness should have been insufferable, and Mad Men leans ever more into the character, and performance, with sympathy.

This is where the show differs from The Sopranos, and indeed Breaking Bad which ran alongside it as another example of the deconstructed American male: Mad Men believes these people deserve happiness. Don may be nihilistic but the show always retains a romantic sensibility beyond the brooding sense of existential darkness, heightened by period music and production design which injects it with colour and redolent glamour. It’s a sad, sexy world of beautiful, complicated people you root for, even when they’re being awful – Don in particular. It was hard to truly root for Tony Soprano because David Chase always reminded you he was a psychopath and a murderer. Don emotionally hurts and scars both of his wives (his second a secretary turned Hollywood ingenue called Megan), traumatises his daughter, and consistently evades confronting the demons of his abusive childhood and the identity fraud he has committed for many years – yet you still care for him.

Person to Person, the series finale, makes this all the more apparent. Mad Men dabbles at times brilliantly in dark comedic farce (take Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency), skitters on the edge of cinematic pretension such as when it evokes the French New Wave (the trio of episodes that conclude Season 2, particularly The Jet Set) and sometimes even ventures into the darkest of psychosexual territory (Don’s treatment of Sylvia, the neighbour he has an affair with, in Season 6 – the show’s dour nadir), but it also can just break your heart, and do so quietly. Don’s final conversation with Betty (apart from Hamm and Jones being on superlative form) brought me to tears, as indeed did his last interaction with Peggy. We are left with Don close to a point of tragic no return minutes from the end. You can imagine him taking a cue from the ad in The Doorway pt II where he unintentionally evokes suicide by depicting a man walking into the ocean.

Weiner, however, believes Don can be redeemed.

Maybe he believes America can be redeemed. Don falls across these seven seasons, loses and regains and loses everything he didn’t realise he held dear, as the people in his life ebb, flow, die and return in his life, and by Person to Person he is bereft. The suit is off. The hair is unkempt. The dream has died. Yet he then finds catharsis at a Californian retreat where a man named Leonard tells Don’s story, and Don does something we’ve never seen him do – he hugs this stranger close and cries with him. It is one of the most moving scenes I have ever watched and it has been earned over many seasons and episodes. It provides a final sense of joy to Mad Men as Weiner ensures these characters face less ambiguousness than might have been imagined, and the show provides a bittersweet but hopeful capstone on a series which essays, often remarkably, a period of American history that remains resonant today.

Mad Men ends with the suggestion Don reaches an advertising apogee, responsible for one of the most seminal Coca Cola TV ads in history, but we will never know for sure. Don might never return to New York, to Peggy, to the children who will need him. Then again, maybe he will. Maybe he will reconcile Don and Dick into one person. Maybe he will be ok. Maybe America will be ok.

Maybe we will all be ok.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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