Now that MAD MEN has completed its network run, a full and complete assessment of the series will start by critics, scholars, and fans. And as seasons and episodes and minutia are pored over with a zeal not seen since BREAKING BAD went off the air, it will get gloriously complicated. Who was Don Draper really? Did he ever find happiness? Was that ending cynical, hopeful, what? And that’s just the last episode’s issues!
MAD MEN was a show that was truly one of the smartest, nuanced and most accomplished programs ever to make its way onto our television sets. Arguably, no other TV show assessed the decay of the American Dream like it. It will be a fascinating treasure to return to again and again and discover more and more each time. There is just so much to revel in there. The great acting across the board, the clever dialogue, the sumptuous production values…they were all extraordinary.
And as we examine it closer, Matthew Weiner’s brainchild will be seen as even more political than perhaps it was during its initial run. Yet such editorializing was always there. Weiner infused the show with his progressive politics and disgust for the corrupt world of business. Most of the takeaways of the show, as it is examined, are inarguable. Here are five that made the program so thought-provoking and such essential viewing over the course of its run. In fact, for my money, MAD MEN was the television program of the last decade and easily one of the top 10 shows of all time.
IT WAS A SCATHING CRITIQUE OF AMERICA
Sorry, Marco Rubio, but your tweet Sunday about MAD MEN being a reminder that the 20thcentury was great was utterly inane. If anything, MAD MEN made a case for the complete opposite. Maybe if one was only looking at its fashion and sets, they’d come away with the idea that MAD MEN was a strong endorsement of the sixties, but it was not. Indeed, it appeared to be a scintillating portrait of mid-century America, but that was just its window dressing. It was its con if you will. Like all those idealized commercials about love and family sprung from Don Draper’s fertile imagination, it was not realistic. But make no mistake, under those tight suits, thin ties and Brylcreem was something quite ugly. Even monstrous.
Set aside obvious big-ticket issues like assassination, war, and poverty that everyone can agree plagued the sixties, MAD MEN shrewdly went after less obvious game. It focused on smaller and subtler horrors of the era. Attitudes, mostly. Repeatedly, the show demonstrated how so many in our nation at the time simply weren’t grasping modernity. Even while the times, they were a-changing, a large portion of men in power remained stuck in their ways, unrepentant in their sins, and clinging to their entitlement. They were unwilling to bend and thus got lost in a fog as thick as the smoke from the cancer sticks they still deigned to puff.
These men acted like pigs at the trough. They not only smoked too much, but they drank too much too. And they treated those not in the “club”, particularly women, with contempt. And the show always called these men out. These characteristics were often exhibited by main characters like Don and Roger, the guys ostensibly we were supposed to root for, but the commentary was clear. The indictments were obvious.
The show was darkly comic as it showed just how these outdated men went a little crazy as the world shifted under their feet. Sure the title of the show refers to the nicknames given to Madison Avenue types, but it carries more important meanings. These men went mad in the world as they realized it no longer was going to be theirs exclusively. And boy, did they flail going down.
And not only did so many of these foolish men not see how women, minorities and other have-nots were starting to move up and wanted more, but they weren’t even on trend with the ad biz. It was shrewd how Weiner even questioned if these relics were masters of that domain. You’ll remember that in the very first episode, creative director Don sneered at the revolutionary Volkswagon “Lemon” ad, complaining about how he couldn’t decide what he hated most about it. Don was really, really wrong a lot of the time, even in his job.
And Sterling Cooper’s power elite displayed other botches too. One of their more famous mistakes was when they worked on the big presidential campaign in 1960. They didn’t work for Kennedy, the voice of a new generation; they worked for Tricky Dick. The world was evolving and these guys were still driving their fathers’ Oldsmobiles. Even when the British were coming to swallow up the agency, Sterling Cooper’s leaders thought it would make things better. Don and his cronies missed a lot of the important road signs along the highway, rendered all the more ironic as ad agency folks are supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its trends.
IT BROKE MORE RULES THAN ANY OTHER MODERN TV SHOW
Not only did the show roast the old guard of power in the sixties, but also it burned a lot of the Hollywood rule book as it went along telling its story. Tinsel Town strongly believes that people abhor period pieces, but MAD MEN proved them wrong. Like all works taking place in the past, they’re really about the present and MAD MEN was no exception. It was about today and that resonated with people. The same issues of men with their heads in the sand during colossal change could be found 50 years after that era. (Wasn’t there a lot of Don Draper in Mitt Romney, a man still trying to figure out who he was, what he believed in, and struggling to form a true identity during the 2012 presidential campaign? Even the hair was similar. Again, all that Brylcreem!)
And who would have ever guessed that a show about people making advertising would become such a phenomenon that enthralled even those who’ve never set foot in an agency? I suspect Weiner knew that this strange world would resonate with an audience that grew up surrounded by marketing, inundated with commercials and media, and slaves to the urge to consume. Everyone is a potential buyer after all, and MAD MEN was all about showing how everyone then and now is selling something.
Weiner always talked up to his audience, and I think viewers appreciated having to think a bit more during the show. There was always a lot of water-cooler debate on Monday, after the Sunday airing, about the characters and what they really felt, particularly Don. It was fascinating to dissect. Weiner’s characters defied convention, so did his storytelling, and we seldom found easy answers. The mystery of it all drew us in even further.
Weiner truly changed the template for episodic drama even more than his mentor David Chase did during the run of HBO’s THE SOPRANOS. It too was amazing TV, of course, but it was about a subject that is always inherently dramatic – the Mob. Then Weiner’s show arrives and it’s about people who make 30-second commercials and it proved to be just as dramatic and tense as all that gangland warfare was. That was a truly remarkable achievement.
MAD MEN succeeded without any of the surefire scenes that the industry insists upon to keep an audience watching. The show had no action-oriented set pieces. No episode or season finales that resembled anything like a cliffhanger. And few of its characters ever truly found redemption. Every screenwriting book in Hollywood tells you that your script must have such things, but Weiner and his show seemed to thumb their noses at such a formula. He resisted. We benefited.
IT HAD THE MOST ANTIHEROIC LEAD EVER
And in Don Draper, Weiner created one of the best TV characters ever – a handsome cad who was a train wreck. We just couldn’t look away. And Jon Hamm gave one of the greatest performances ever by playing that antihero with such authority and vulnerability. Hopefully, the Emmy voter will finely award him a statue, and shame on them for not doing it years ago!
And regarding Don, has TV ever seen such an irredeemable lead, the main character so unwilling or unable to change? A man who so often back-pedaled? Don Draper was a cheat, a liar, and a con man so many times that he actually was quite sociopathic in his way. There was a heart somewhere underneath all that, or we’d like to think there was, but Don sure could be the biggest shit nonetheless. At least he was called out on it continually, at work, at home, and at play. So why couldn’t Don change?
Well, as Weiner has pointed out in many interviews, people don’t really change all that much in life. Sure, Don tried here and there, but like most people, he could only venture so far outside his comfort zone. He attempted on occasion to be less selfish and more empathetic, yet for every noble step he took forward, he would seemingly end up taking the proverbial two steps back. It’s a credit to Hamm that we always saw the lost soul inside, even when he was wreaking so much havoc.
In an early season, Don bared his soul to his colleague and love interest Faye, and at that moment, he clearly felt like he’d removed a huge albatross from around his neck. But alas, it was too good to last. Don backslid once again, dumping his intellectual equal and moral superior because his ego just couldn’t take it. Instead, he ended up quickly courting and marrying his young secretary Megan. She was in awe of him for a while, but she saw his warts soon enough too. Weiner was always on the side of the women Don hurt. And he ensured that they always called him out on his bullshit.
Don did have some wonderful moments of forward-thinking. He recognized Peggy’s talent and often championed her. His shocking admission to the Hershey client about his whorehouse upbringing lost the account and got him fired, but it was a clarifying moment of self-truth for Don. And he reached out to Sally to try to make up for all the hell he had put her through. But Don never quite made it all the way to redemption. It was too easy to turn tail and run.
Don could stand with Tony from THE SOPRANOS in many ways. And that wasn’t good. Heck, sometimes Tony came off better than Don because he truly was trying. Despite his sins, mobster Tony was desperate to change, even going so far as to see a psychiatrist. Walter White, too, was another antihero on TV that Don had a lot in common with. Both were always BREAKING BAD, but Walter’s motivation for dealing drugs was to secure his family’s future. Comparatively, Don committed most of his transgressions because of a woefully overblown sense of machismo and entitlement. His family never came into the picture. He wasn’t a killer like those other two men, but for a guy whose greatest strength was that he was a marketing whiz, he sure left a lot of damage in his wake.
And in the last moments of the show, when Don is trying to get in touch with his mind, body, and soul through chanting and yoga, he likely smiles in that last close-up because the ad wizard in his soul has just thought of an ingenious way to co-opt the touchy-feely youth culture for a soda brand that desperately wants to be the brand in hand. You don’t know if such a brainstorm is to be admired or reviled. Maybe both. Don Draper was both tragedy and comedy, a metaphor for that America which Weiner was critiquing throughout the run of the show. He represented a nation that no longer knew who it was, had some serious integrity issues, and took a lot down with him while he tried to figure it all out.
THE PRODUCTION VALUES CHANGED TV’S LOOK
Sure, we’re now all used to the incredible production design and cinematography of programs like GAME OF THRONES and HANNIBAL. They look like movies. But MAD MEN did it best and set a new course for making every detail count in ways it hadn’t before, from top to bottom, socks to props to everything. It revived sixties fashion styles too, particularly in bringing back those tight-fitting, small lapeled men’s suits, and you can see them any night that Jimmy Fallon or Bill Maher are on. AMC TV spent a pretty penny on MAD MEN, but every single cent always was there in plain view. Never had the small screen loomed so large.
IT PERFECTLY MATCHED TODAY’S TIMES
Weiner’s finale opted for a cynicism that is perfectly in tune with our times. Clearly, he didn’t want to go for a neat, pat ending and just because Peggy and Stan are together, that doesn’t guarantee a “happily ever after” for them. Same with Pete’s reconciliation with Trudy. Joan’s business venture could be wildly successful, or not. And maybe Don returns to McCann with a Coke jingle that puts him back on top of the ad world, but I doubt he’d truly be happy even with such fame.
And in thinking about the show this past decade, it seemed to me that the show really zeroed in on how badly we handle turbulent times in our nation. 9-11, like the big tragedies of the sixties, didn’t bring us closer together. It tore us apart even more and made factions more partisan. Electing a black president didn’t make us ‘post-racial’, as Ferguson and Baltimore certainly proved. And even though we know what global warming is doing to the planet, our heads remain in the sand. Is it much different from that bygone era of MAD MEN when too many people refused to believe that cigarettes were killers? (Alas, poor Betty, we knew thee – cough, cough – well.)
Are we falling like Don in the opening credits, with everything we once believed in falling away too? Weiner’s answer was, “Yes, indeed.” MAD MEN held up a mirror to all of us and said, “Look America, you’re a nation of Don Drapers.” Stop flailing, stop falling, and change. Do more than just obsess over the next iteration of the iPhone. Stop being a self-absorbed consumer and think outside your selfies and personal lattes. The world is going mad, after all. So what are you going to do about it?