This week, I can almost guarantee, this water cooler conversation will be repeated throughout the world:
“So, what was Mad Men all about?”
“I’ve no idea.”
It’s been seven seasons and eight years, and this show, a veritable study in ambiguity of which Stanley Kubrick would have been proud, has become a true cultural phenomenon. Tonight, it all comes to a close, one way or another. Matthew Weiner’s deep, complex study of the 1960s, and of the modern American identity has taken us on a not-so-guided tour of the recent past, made stars out of Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss and affected fashion taste and even the drink choices of the world. It’s been some time since a TV show has been able to set the cultural zeitgeist like that. Especially one that’s so artful and studied, defying genre and easy description. MASH was a big hit, too, but that show, for all its brilliance, was an 8th grade paper on the Korean war in comparison. Mad Men is the advanced College seminar version.
The most superficial reading is that this show was about the sixties, seen from the ground level, in something like real time. Being the 50th anniversary decade of that substantial and important period, the timing was ideal. It’s a terrible cliche to say that “the sixties were an important time,” but let’s admit that there’s some truth in that. The social, economic and political forces stirred in the sixties would, eventually, mostly in the 1970s, change the world. So Mad Men, by turning the clock back to 1960 itself and walking us, slowly, through the decade, Weiner and company had the opportunity to give a younger generation the chance to immerse themselves in the fashion, language, habits and norms of a different time, and then watch all of those things change in subtle ways. Part of the fun of watching the show, at least on the most base level, has been watching sideburns get longer, lapels get a little wider, drugs get more interesting, skirts get shorter and the music gets a whole lot better.
In terms of fashion, the show fed an underground trend in the hipster community towards retro clothing and jewelry that became quite genuine. Just look at the trend towards black suits and thin ties worm by celebs in the past decade or so, combined with the return of the early 70s “full beard” look. The heavy drinking on the show (probably period accurate) changed a generation from draft beer to rye and martinis, and the constant cigarette smoking on the show (my God, they even smoked in elevators back then!) gave them a certain cool cachet that cigarettes had lost over the years. The only comparable cultural trend would have been the short-lived “Swing” revival of the 1990s, where for just a moment, thanks to films like Swingers, everything 1930s and 1940s became fashionable again. It remains to be seen whether the cool sixties style of Mad Men will be equally ephemeral.
Another great thing about this show, for a certain kind of fan, was the opportunity to see AMC and “serious” television mine the Whedonverse for actors and creative personalities. Christina Hendricks might be a big star now thanks to her turn as office maven Joan Harris, but Firefly fans remember her as the cunning, sexy and dangerous con woman “Saffron”. Pete Campbell, a horrible, slimy piece of worm-ridden filth (just to pull in another class of film references) is played by Vincent Kartheiser, who we saw on Angel in the long-running role of Angel’s son, Connor. Even Danny Strong, who played Jonathan on Buffy and is now an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, turned up for a short run. Marti Noxon, a main producer and show-runner from Buffy, is even on-board as a consulting producer. For a Whedon fan, to see all of these familiar faces in a show light years removed from the land of Buffy and Angel (in genre: NOT in quality) was always a huge treat, and demonstrated as clearly as anything else that there’s just as much talent in “genre” shows than any other.
All the cultural affectations and geeky TV references in the world wouldn’t have made this show what it was, if it weren’t for its deep sense of literate intelligence. Probably the best, succinct qualitative description of Mad Men is “novelistic”. And not just in terms of its length, but in its studied ambivalence, the way it slowly reveals plot elements using subtle cues and underplayed ennui. It allows the characters to grow and change in slow, organic ways, and is almost completely free from the “three acts, protagonist vs antagonist” mechanical nightmare of formula screenwriting.
The season opener of Season 6 is as illustrative of the show’s style as anything else, beginning with our main character, Don Draper, on vacation in Hawaii with his new young wife Megan (Jessica Pare). Visually, it’s an homage to mid-60s Elvis movies, with lots of white pants, flowered shirts and toweringly complex, brightly coloured drinks. But rather than cavorting with his new wife, who is enthusiastically all over him in bed and everywhere else, Don sits by the pool wearing astronaut sunglasses (he’s later mistaken for one), reading Dante’s Inferno. The first words spoken in the season are Don narrating the opening lines of Inferno, about coming to the middle of his life’s journey. That’s all in the first five minutes, but the tone is absolutely set.
Deep at the heart of the show was the mystery of Don Draper himself, and within that, the mystery of the American male identity. (Not to be left out, this final season has been reminding us that Mad Men has also, through its strong and complex female characters, that the female American identity was evolving just as much, if not more, during this period.) Don Draper is a completely fake person, made up of bits and pieces of real people, and the rest is imitation. One of the first big “reveals” of the show back in the first season (seven year statue of limitations on spoilers, folks) was that Don’s real name is Dick Whitman. Whitman, born and raised in a whorehouse in the mid-west, was a bumbling fool, drafted into the Korean war. In Korea, he proceeded to accidentally kill his commanding officer, Lt. Don Draper of California, and assume the man’s identity.
A lesser show would have been entirely about Don’s secret, how he’s going to keep it and the lengths to which he would go to avoid being found out. Whole movies have been spun from less. But not this show: time and time again, Weiner and company steer around cliches in that story and find a fresh take on it. They aren’t interested in cheap drama or thrills: they’re interested in character. So, when the real Don Draper’s wife finds the imposter using her dead husband’s name, it doesn’t turn into a chase sequence but rather a true, loving and real friendship between them. Don sets up Anna Draper and takes care of her for the rest of her life, even becoming close to her niece. Don’s boss, Roger Sterling (the “Fonzie” of the show), also eventually discovers his secret and it’s a non-event. He doesn’t care.
The question of Don’s identity is an important one because, for one thing, it illustrates how much more of a meritocracy the 1960s was, for some people. It’s doesn’t matter that Don never went to College, didn’t study advertising, doesn’t have the right credentials for the job: he can do it, and do it well, and for that he becomes a successful New York millionaire. Today, his job application wouldn’t even be read. This openness, again for some (white males only, please), allowed some interesting characters to rise to the top, and the characters who populate the advertising firm of Sterling-Cooper (later Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, and other titles) are curious to say the least.
One of the most curious was the character of Lane Pryce, played by Jared Harris from seasons 3-5. Pryce is something of Don’s opposite number, British, aristocratic, cultured, and clearly born to the role he’s playing in life. Only, Lane is sensitive and emotional and makes mistakes, and rather than being the imperious taskmaster accountant he seems in his early appearances, he and Don become very close, and his end is tragic and understandable. Once again, Weiner and company completely circumvent cliches, taking us into unexpected dramatic territory.
Then there’s the issue of history, of going through the sixties and knowing the historical narrative in a way the characters don’t. Part of the fun, watching Mad Men, is to wait for the big events to roll around on the calendar and see how the characters react. Don takes his daughter to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Kennedy wins the 1960 election (Don voted for Nixon and passionately explains why) and is later killed (a very moving episode). Hippie culture starts to infiltrate the office, usually brought in through the character of Peggy Olson, who deserves ten articles all to herself. Joan’s husband goes to Vietnam. And Apollo 11 lands on the moon, to which old Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), who survived the Great Depression and represents a senior generation in American life says, “Bravo!”.
The title is a play on the term “Ad Men”, which was sort of a go-to profession for urban dilettantes in 1950s Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest. A job that men could smoke cigarettes and look cool doing, but didn’t seem to involve much more than having five martinis at lunch and putting on a suit. Initially, the show did seem to be at least partially about the phenomenon of modern advertising, carefully walking us as an audience through the process, offering insight into how advertisers were learning to reach the American public in the sixties in new ways. It’s a job that required someone with a finger on the cultural pulse of the nation, but also the ability to be distanced from it, to rise above it, comment on it and know how to manipulate it. This is perfect casting for a fake personality like Don Draper, whose entire existence seems to consist of staring and thinking, while drinking. But the show abandons the professional focus fairly early on, once some initial points are made. Sure, the business machinations would continue to figure into the plot, as the advertising firm is bought, sold, re-bought, re-sold, re-packaged, etc. And in recent episodes, advertising has been used to make social points, like Joan and Peggy’s pitch to a pantyhose company that turns into ugly sexism.
However much the narrative focus might shift away from the art of advertising towards the characters, the cultural “distancing” that profession requires is a motif running through the whole show. Don, and certain other characters, particularly Peggy, are part of the sixties, but not really part of it. Don smokes the odd joint, and Peggy really tries to get into bearded guys, pot and experimental film, but in the end they’re just outside of the cultural zeitgeist. They can’t quite seem to be part of it. Compare them with Roger, the World War II vet, a spoiled, rich, entitled mid-century silver fox who dives head first into pills, girls, booze, drugs, more girls, and moustaches. Roger doesn’t understand the sixties, but he’s damn well going to enjoy them while they’re here. Don and Peggy, on the other hand, always seem to be struggling to find their place. And now with one last episode to go, it’s doubtful we’ll see either of them find it, which suits this kind of open, novelistic drama.
Perhaps it’s difficult to dissect this show because it is indeed so rich. Any single article like this one can only skim the surface of the show. But it’s interesting that all of that richness comes out of the most old-fashioned of storytelling. There are no special effects here (well, almost none – the episode in which Roger does LSD has some great subtle things), no car chases, no gunfights, no sword fights, no capes, just grown ups, going to their jobs and getting on with their lives the best they can. There’s no “trick” to it: it’s just good writing and well-played drama. That’s probably what the many fans of this show will miss the most.
As to what it all means, that was a trick question. The fact that everyone asks it is the point. Like all great art, its meaning will change and grow and evolve, just as it has been doing. This show “means” just as much or as little as the viewer wishes, and we should be grateful that there still exists such great American drama.