With Season 6 all wrapped up now, I wanted to reflect on Mad Men. Having followed the series since 2007 when it first aired, you’ll have to forgive me if my memories of the earlier seasons are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, a small introduction if you’ve been living under a rock and have never heard of this hit US TV show. Mad Men is a drama series set in the 1960s, following the exploits of ad agent creative executive Don Draper. Don is a suave ladies man played by Jon Hamm, who rocks the office with his mind-blowing creative pitches as well as his ability to make everyone’s panties drop when he walks into a room. We follow the extra-marital exploits of this married man, his life both at home and the office, as well as take a look at the other characters which surround him. The Mad Men cast is rather large and varied, and Don Draper is backed up by a dynamic and strongly developed secondary cast of office staff, clients, mistresses and wives. Mad Men, in my opinion, is very much a character-driven drama, with the 1960s setting adding a touch of flare and style unique to the show. But what Mad Men does so well, and what it is so critically renowned for, is how it weaves in these realistic yet slightly surreal storylines in with the general background noise of 1960s New York and all the upheavals and glories of that period. It is a show that has been praised for its historical accuracy, though I really don’t think that’s the main focus of the show. Instead, the main focus has to be on the adventures of Don Draper and company, particularly with an eye towards unravelling the mystery of Don’s past.
The show deals with a plethora of themes such as how professional life ties in with domestic lives, the cut-throated business of advertising in New York, the role of women at the time, the ongoing tensions about race, adultery, alcoholism and also the growing counter-culture movement versus the establishment. In fact, the advertising motif is used expertly to shine a light on the whole show, and also on human psychology. The advertising pitches often reflect sentiments which underlie the show, and lay all of those pesky themes out in the open for easy dissection. With themes as heavy as these, Mad Men is not a light-hearted show. Whilst it has its funny, genuine moments and its heart-warming ones, more often than not, the show is plagued by darkness. What Mad Men seems to do best is to highlight how our nostalgic views of the idyllic domestic life on the 1960s were actually tainted by the negative influences of the time, and exposes this myth around the perfect suburban 1960s house for what it often was. Don Draper’s life might seem perfect at first: he has a beautiful wife, two lovely children, a large house in the suburbs and a fantastic job, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Very few characters on this show are what you might consider happy. In fact, life in the 1960s is often an uphill struggle for people who seem to have it all, but especially for those who have little to nothing.
One of the best examples of this is the various women in the cast. Whilst the rampant misogyny in the office at the start of the series may be highly offensive to modern sensibilities, it serves its purpose by highlighting the plight of certain women at the time. Of course, Sterling Cooper (the agency) only employs female secretaries, and all of them are subject to the wandering gaze of all its working male executives. Most of the secretaries are there to find husbands, and happily play along with the corporate culture of the time. However, the show starts with us following Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) on her first day, a young beady eyed secretary hired to be Don’s assistant. Immediately, we realise she’s not like the other secretaries, and least of all, not like Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the Queen Bee of the establishment. For me, the show is just as much about Peggy’s journey as it is about Don’s. But I don’t want to spoil anything, you’ll see as the series progresses how much Peggy as a character experiences even in Don’s shadow.
As I said earlier, life is an uphill battle for even the most privileged of characters. We soon realise that none of the characters are particularly happy, though a lot of it rings of first world problems. Still, Mad Men expertly balances the real struggles (black people being killed in the street, gay people being actively persecuted, women having no equality etc.) with the lesser struggles (“I have too many mistresses” and “I hate my beautiful wife and beautiful kids”) in a way which actually makes you sympathise with even the most privileged characters. It’s crazy how a show can both make you love the underdogs and the top cats at the same time. To be honest, there is not a single character in Mad Men who I despise; there are many whose actions, motivations and character I question, but Mad Men always does a fantastic job of explaining exactly why a character would act in such a way.
You see, what I love about the show is its ability to fully immerse me in the lives of these characters. They live such different lives to me, yet I find myself empathising with all of them. What do I know of the plight of a young black secretary in the 1960s? Absolute nothing, but Mad Men convinces me that this is one portrayal of such a thing and that it is an accurate one. Another extremely well done aspect is how it manages to balance realism with entertainment. I suspect it would be incredibly boring to watch a documentary about office workers in the 60s. Mad Men however, is no documentary, and its drama levels are often whacked up to 11. It can sometimes reach soap opera levels of drama, but it’s done in such a masterful and beautifully cinematic way that it doesn’t feel contrived or out of place. It is a soap for intelligent people, written by intelligent people and filmed by artistic geniuses. It is a show of details, one which you could analyse frame by frame, and yet never be bored by. That, in my opinion, is a fantastic feat.
From an artistic standpoint, the show’s cinematography deserves a mention. Its setting is period-accurate, its costuming is brilliant and oftentimes, insightful, and the overall look of the show is gorgeous. Somehow, despite its dark themes, manages to glamorise a period which often gets a much worse rap in history. I learnt about US history of the period, and it was all race riots and assassinations. Mad Men shows the other side to that, and how characters react to the events around them. It offers a window into a world which has been lost, a world where smoking and drinking in the office was normal and harassing female employees like they were prostitutes was acceptable. These are not admirable traits. But Mad Men does in many ways, glamorise the whole situation, but not in a way which glorifies it. It sanctifies the whole lot for our modern sensibilities, but it is a constant reminder that this is not good. The things in the show are not good things.
No one exemplifies that more than the character of Don Draper, who may seem like a suave hero but is much more an anti-hero. People love Don Draper not because he’s aspirational, but because he’s broken and there is something deeply fascinating about broken people and how they handle themselves. I think people who hate Mad Men because they find it offensive are slightly missing the point, and likewise, people who actually admire Don Draper are also missing the point. The show is a gritty hard look at the reality of life, but dressed up in a way which makes it entertaining and digestible. I applaud the show creators for taking that step, because at the end of the day, it’s a TV show and you can’t make it too depressing. They’ve managed to tread that line very carefully, and despite its incredible darkness, you can still see the sunlight through the clouds.
Has this piqued your interest? Well, I’ll warn you, the show is a bit slow going to start off with. But I’ve stuck with it for 6 years now, and I’m still a huge fan of it. The quality of the show has remained consistently high throughout its long run, which is a rare thing in television. In my opinion, most good shows are fairly short or have few seasons (such as The Wire, and to some extent, Breaking Bad) or they overstay their welcome and become diluted and terrible (see Scrubs and even, in my mind, Dexter). Mad Men looks to be at the perfect length currently, and there’s speculation that the next season (no. 7!) will be its last. Will I be sad when it ends? It’s hard to say. I’ll miss it probably, but it’s definitely a show that I will accept when it ends because I know that dragging it out will only diminish the quality of the whole thing. For now, I’m eagerly awaiting its possible last season, and can’t wait to see how these wonderful characters’ lives develop.