Mad Men is truly an interesting piece of the American pop culture miasma. I am pretty sure that it is art because the first time I watched it I thought it sucked. Movie and television critic Todd Vanderwerff noted once, in a review that I am too lazy to look up, that it can take people a long time to “get” Mad Men. Many never do. But for those who do, the persistence of watching eventually pays off and what the show is doing will finally click into place for you. And once it does you start to appreciate the complex sweep of the show’s ambitions from a new light. For me this started to happen in the 2nd season, which I guess says a lot about me as a person that I watched a show I didn’t really like for 1 1/2 seasons just because I had nothing better to do.
I remember watching the pilot episode on a DVD I checked out from the library and it all seemed so rote. I couldn’t understand why everybody was raving over this show about a typical 1960s marriage, with the unhappy housewife and unfaithful husband. But I pushed through it, gradually at first in fits and phases, but eventually in a more sustained manner once I moved to Singapore and had to fill up my time living in cramped student housing hiding from the sweltering heat. And eventually, I don’t know, it did kind of click. I guess for me it was when I realized that while the themes were pretty well-traveled, especially if you’ve ever picked up a Richard Yates book, Mad Men was doing something different. For me, that realization started with the structure.
As Todd Vanderwerff also pointed out, each episode of this show was more like a short story than part of an overarching 13-episode season. The show was far less interested in being a plot-driven serialization and much more interested in creating a very intimate and realistic exploration of the inner lives of its characters. Untethered from the Plot Fairy it could dive into its characters and their lives. It could experiment with style (like in the drug episode) and with structure, making characters do things that actual people do even if that undercut and ran against what we as viewers have been trained to expect from plots.
Don’s sudden, yet oddly organic, marriage to Megan is a good example (it’s one of the moments I thought to myself, Hey this show really has the balls to be truly different). Or my personal favorite, the fourth episode of the final season where Sterling Cooper realize that McCann is going to absorb them and the partners launch a spunky plan to save the agency. In a normal show, this improbable and mildly idiotic plan would have carried the day so the audience could experience the catharsis of seeing their favorite characters triumph one last time. But in Mad Men the plan is simply halted in mid-stride in an anti-climactic way and the characters are left to contemplate, as real people would have to do, how they want to carry on in the face of a rather crushing disappointment, swept along by forces they cannot really control. That’s good writing. Because that’s real life.
Before I get to some of the other things I really liked about the show, I do want to acknowledge that I understand why not everyone gets Mad Men. There are a few glaring liabilities that it carried more or less from end-to-end in its run. The first is wooden, stiff acting. This was epitomized in the character of Betty Draper. Why did January Jones portray the character in this way? We will never know for sure, unless someone has already asked Matthew Weiner about it. But she acts like an automaton. I get that the character is supposed to be distant and cold and somewhat unlikable, but I never understood this choice and it just never worked for me.
It leads one to wonder whether Weiner instructed the actors to act woodenly, like they were fabricated steel rods. Vincent Kartheiser certainly portrayed Pete Campbell in a strangely off-putting way, like a person pretending to act the way he thought a normal human being was supposed to. Maybe this was a conscious choice that Weiner made because he wanted to give the impression that everyone in the cast was just putting up and projecting a false image of what they wanted to world to see. With Kartheiser this weird stiffness eventually became quite a reliable running gag, but with Betty it never seemed like she nor the writers were in on the joke. She was just stiff and uninteresting. Trying to pass off bad acting as a conscious artistic choice? I never felt this worked.
But then again, maybe Weiner is actually just bad at casting people and doesn’t really know what he wants from his actors or what good acting is. The most glaring evidence in support of this theory was the character of Glenn who, it turns out, is Mathew Weiner’s son. Glenn was a blight on the show. He ruined any scene he was in and should never have been in the show in the first place, let alone been a recurring character who was supposed to actually be important to both Sally and Betty’s character arcs. Glenn was garbage. He exists in the show merely due to nepotism. But it does make you wonder, if Weiner was willing to put his shit-ass actor of a kid in the show, were there other elements of the show where he put blinders on as well?
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to my other major criticism of the show which is the way it portrayed the 60s in general, but especially the way it portrayed California. California was written as this mythical, mystical fantasy land where staid, uptight New Yorkers could go and unwind. This was folded into the theme of Don’s fake identity (another liability the show carried around for years), asserting basically that California was an oasis where Don could go and indulge his real self, far removed from Madison Avenue and surrounded by the liberating influence of hippies and drugs.
This concept of California as not just a different place but almost a different reality from New York was played up very hard and very excessively and, frankly, it sucked ass. It was like a guy from New York who had never been to California wrote these scenes, based on what he imagined California was like from having watched some old stock footage. Generally speaking, that is what much of the show’s “perception” of the 60s was like - fractured, weird and obviously the reinterpreted memories of someone who had lived through the 60s only vaguely, as a young kid perhaps.
In a twist no one saw coming, Matthew Weiner was born in Baltimore in 1965. This series, then, is basically just the way he remembers the world of his childhood, including this weird Othering of California and an overly stylized idea of what hippies were. By the time Weiner was 15 and coming into his own as an adult who could more accurately perceive the world, the era of Alex P. Keaton as a hero for the American middle class was upon us and the 60s must have appeared in his memory like a distant bit of fog that he couldn’t quite touch. I am sure, although I have no evidence other than my brain, that all of this warped Weiner’s memories of what the world of his early years was like and that ended up forming the basis of Mad Men.
Remarkably, in the non-California scenes, this fogged lens ended up being one of the show’s greatest strengths. Because it is safe to say that the world of Madison Avenue ad men, as envisioned in the show, never existed. Sure, looking back on the long arc of history wealthy privileged white people, usually guys, like to imagine that that was the way it was. Suits fit perfectly, ice cubs clinked majestically in highball glasses, and the world was just as it should have been and always would be.
Thanks to immaculate production design and exacting attention to detail, Man Men excelled at pulling us into this seductive, dreamy illusion of what life in the 1960s was for white American men at the top of their professions. Of course, this world never really existed on the way it was portrayed, but as a fever dream of Matthew Weiner’s stylized memories it worked brilliantly at creating this manufactured yet exquisitely textured facsimile of the 1960s. And over time, I came to love spending time in that place with those characters.
This world-building was one of the show’s great strengths. It recreated a lost era out of the impressions that era left on its maker. Even if it failed to align with reality, the impressionistic world that Mad Men did create was so alive, so sensual and so fun to hang around in that for many people that was enough to hook them on the show. They may not necessarily have been interested in what the show was doing to subvert traditional story structure or plotting, or the novel things it did with its characters.
But for many people the fun of Mad Men was just a throwback to an imagined era of American Greatness, where they could revel in the comfort of hanging out with Don Draper wearing an immaculate suit and tossing back Old Fashioneds in a bar with real mahogany and leather booths. Sometimes you can still find steakhouses like that (Billingsley’s in West LA, which used to be owned by Barbara Billingsley of Leave it to Beaver, was just such a place), and they are like little time capsules. Mad Men brought us back to that place every time that it aired.
But what elevated the show is that beyond it’s world-building, and the total lack of fucks it gave about traditional plotting or storytelling, was what it did with its characters. Mad Men sought to create fully textured, real people. Don Draper is obviously the focal point here, so lets start with him. The basis of Don Draper’s character is something that is universal to the human condition: he didn’t like who he was as a person. Not as a character in a show, who had to go through some manufactured bullshit journey where he learns and them embraces some shallow value like self-sacrifice or some shit, but as a human being. He didn’t like himself. And he was terrified that someone might discover who he really was.
So he created this carefully constructed persona of Don Draper. The show hit that nail on the head much too hard and directly in the first season with the whole Dick Whitman thing. I think this is because someone at AMC told them they needed some kind of hook, some soapy element in the first season because a bunch of middle aged wealthy white people ruminating about their unhappiness wouldn’t cut it. And so they came up with this. But really, that is making the subtext text in a kind of obvious and irritating way and the show, as it grew more confident over the years, moved away from that gimmick (like how Don told Megan off-screen about the Dick Whitman rhubarb and she didn’t give a fuck). But anyway it comes back to the same basic point: Don doesn’t like himself, so he creates this image for the world and he wants to sell them on it.
The fact that Don is also an ad man is just another layer of interesting complexity because not only does he sell people around him on the image of himself that he wants to project, but he makes his living selling the stuff companies make to people by tricking them into thinking they want it. And when he does his best work, like in Season One’s Carousel, he is able to craft the perfect ad by channeling what he really wants. But really all you have to do to understand Don Draper is realize that he is projecting to the world an image of who he wants to be, the person he thinks the world will accept. And people buy it. But once someone gets close to him and learns who he really is, finds out about his imperfections and his character flaws, he becomes distant. Not because he hates them, necessarily, but because he hates himself and holds it against them because they found out who he really is. Now that is a realistic, complex character. Those are real human emotions and motivations. This isn’t “Is the responsibility of wearing a Spider-Man outfit too much or no?” It’s grounded in real human things. You rarely see such a thing in TV or movies.
The character work on this show was just great throughout. Peggy’s evolution had the same textured, realistic dimension as Don’s. That is to say, her “evolution” didn’t happen because the plot needed it, or because her “arc” felt unsatisfying. It happened because, like, that’s basically how you might expect a career-minded self-doubting Catholic woman trying to break through in the 1960s to experience things. The waves of self-doubted, the triumphs, the ego. It all, or most of it, squared at the end and it made you feel like this character was a real person, with real feelings and real problems. And that is vanishingly rare in TV or movies.
But that’s not all. The show then took all this realistic, painstaking character work and did something more with it. It used it to contrast with and illuminate the passage of time. So the whole show, especially once it was a hit and they knew they could go as long as they wanted, is about moving through time and how people and their circumstances and the world around them change. People you know die. Your career options and aspirations and opportunities change. You have kids. World events happen to you, and the way everybody experienced those events, usually through the prism of the Sterling Cooper offices but sometimes not, was a really interesting thing that the show did.
In this way it showed that character arcs in a movie or a TV show are bullshit. People don’t start out a certain way, then experience events, and ultimately end up changed after going through an epiphany. That is fabricated bullshit. People are who they are, and they struggle against history trying to locate themselves as best they can in a chaotic flood of happenings and shifting fortunes. And the show really captured that - aside from the overdone 60s and California stuff.
It is, in addition to everything else, a show about how people grapple with the world and their place in that world as it changes. Roger had to deal with his own mortality. Don had to deal with his divorce and his kids getting older, and then the failure of a second marriage and how society was beginning to see marriage and women in a different light. Joan had to adapt her identity to a workplace where women were gaining more agency and she feared missing the boat. They all had to deal with a world where black people were asserting their rights and technology was coming for their jobs. The world changed around them and because the character work was so good, we were invested in how they changed with it, as people do.
The writing and the jokes were whip-smart, too. The structure was innovative. The character work was beyond good. The world of Mad Men is one that sucks you in, full-stop. But the ending left something to be desired. If there is one thing I hated about Mad Men - beyond the terrible California scenes, Betty’s acting and Glenn being in the show - it was the ending. This is, I believe, related to the way the show treated California as this kind of salvation from the soul-sucking work of manufacturing a glossy facade for public consumption and profit. Come to California, it seemed to say, and Be Yourself and you will Be Saved. That is the worse kind of twice-washed hippie-dippie bullshit I ever heard. But there is evidence that Matthew Weiner actually believes in that new age guru shit.
The evidence is the way the show ended, with Don on a downward spiral until he goes to a - what else!?! - hippie commune on the West Coast and “discovers himself.” He then writes the famous “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Now, there are two ways you could have viewed that episode. One is that it’s a cynical way for Don to take his personal anguish and suffering and use it to sell more cokes! But the other way, and the one Weiner acknowledged he was going for, is that Don actually does reach a state of catharsis or peace with himself and the Coke ad, which is in its ultimate analysis just a way for a huge American corporation to sell fucking sodas, is the apotheosis of his spiritual journey. Those things don’t jibe. They don’t match. And they don’t make no fucking sense together.
It makes you wonder if Matthew Weiner is really the genius we thought he was all along. It’s not really my place to question that, as the show he produced is I think without question one of the greater works of American culturana in the last one a half decades. But it does make you wonder, if the whole time he was making this show about cynical people who don’t like themselves and try to manipulate the public into buying things they don’t need, if maybe he missed what the message was the whole time. To end on that note, a happy note that says yeah advertising is shit and it exploits peoples doubts and insecurities to make them into good consumers, but it can also unite the world and help this troubled man transcend his demons…. What show were we really watching all along?