I was a latecomer to “Mad Men,” the much celebrated TV series about Madison Avenue advertising in the 1960s, which ended in May. When the series premiered in 2007, I recall hearing NPR radio spots about it, and being intrigued, but never actually finding the time to watch it.
It was a year later, shortly after getting married, that my husband got me hooked on the show, which I found compelling for its depiction of a bygone era, but depressing for its rampant adultery, promiscuity and other destructive behaviors. I quickly learned that there were no fully “good” characters in the series – everyone was painted with streaks of greed, lust, jealousy, and corrupting ambition. Drawn in by the complex characters, glamorous wardrobe, and fabulous writing (there were so many perfect one-liners) I couldn’t seem to stop watching the show, but frequently after viewing an episode, I found myself feeling restless and down, depressed or frustrated by various plot twists.
This tension is one of the celebrated features of the show. Mad Men was never supposed to have good guys and bad guys – the characters are all realistic in that they are complicated mixes of likeable and detestable traits. I get that. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to know any of them in real life.
I suppose it is unsophisticated to admit this, but I like shows that have good guys, and I really like it when the good guys win. To be fair, I probably would not have liked most of the real people who worked in advertising in 60s, and it is part of the brilliance of the show to depict these characters as deeply flawed but still sympathetic. Even though Don Draper was a serial adulterer with a drinking problem who was rarely present for his kids, I wanted him to overcome his demons. I wanted him to be happy. For heaven’s sakes, a guy with classic Hollywood looks should have a happy ending because that’s how fiction works!
I got so disillusioned with the show that I skipped the whole sixth season and much of the seventh, but, and this reveals the extent of my addiction to the series, even though I wasn’t watching I regularly read the TV Club analysis of the show on Slate. I couldn’t bear to watch, but I had to know what was happening.
I tuned back in for the last few episodes of the series, with the usual mix of fascination and frustration, which lasted right up until the end. I applaud showrunner Matthew Weiner for staying true to his vision while wrapping up the story with measured doses of happiness and hope for the central characters. Just as in real life, there were no definitive resolutions, but there was clarity of purpose for Don and other characters and that was significant, and probably the most a cock-eyed optimist like me could hope for from Mad Men.
Through my obsessive reading of reviews and recaps of the series, I found a lot of commentary that was spot-on, and helped me understand why I was so drawn in by the show. Here’s a summary of some of the analysis I liked the most:
From the start, the show was a celebration of the creative process. One of the most-remembered scenes is a pitch by Don Draper at the end of season one for the Kodak “carousel,” the wheel to show slides on a projector. Don riffs on the word carousel in his ad concept, showing that the new device is not merely a useful technology, but a gateway to nostalgia, as it takes viewers on a circular ride through happy memories.
Moments like these, when Don or his colleagues have a creative epiphany, are the high points of the show. In a later season, Don advocates giving his writers and graphic artists the space they need to work, and “getting out of their way.” At the time that episode aired, I was working in the marketing department of a big company, and the marketing director referenced that line in a staff meeting, making me feel like my job was connected, however remotely, to the glamorous world of Mad Men, and that my creative input was valued. (Unfortunately, there was nothing glamorous or inspiring about my job, which didn’t actually want or need me to be particularly creative, but that’s another story.)
The decade from 1960 to 1970 has been celebrated, eulogized and imitated in countless films and television shows, most of them extremely nostalgic. Mad Men took the tribute genre to a new level by being scrupulous about historical details and favoring realism over nostalgia. In Mad Men, in the early 60s, women get treated like chattel in the work place, people of color are relegated to jobs as janitors and elevator operators, families go to the country for a picnic and leave their litter all over the ground, alcohol consumption at work starts before noon, people smoke like chimneys everywhere (the office, in doctors’ examining rooms, restaurants) and newborn babies ride home from the hospital in their mother’s arms (no car seats). Despite the high fashion façade, Mad Men makes clear that the 1960s were not the good old days.
On the other hand, I loved the way major news events (assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the moon landing) were woven into the stories. It was fascinating to see characters’ reactions to these events (I watched clips of scenes from episodes I did not watch in full). Life doesn’t come to a standstill, but there is pause, shock, fear, and, in the case of the moon landing, hope and celebration. I loved these moments of seeing what life must have been like as people were coping with major historical events.
Finally, Mad Men offers a wonderful depiction of office life – the pressure, the competition, the comradeship, the ordinariness and the potential to do something great. Mad Men was noted for the slow pace of its plot lines, in contrast to fast-paced dramas that are more popular these days. Like real office life, things unfold slowly, days are often long, and petty disputes get blown out of proportion. But when deadlines loom or crises unfold, people band together and rise to the occasion. While the atmosphere of Mad Men is more intense than anywhere I have worked, and the characters are much larger than life, there is a lot about the culture that feels familiar, and that is what makes the show most compelling, and what I’ll miss the most.