Published on April 21st, 2015 | by Dave Scaddan0
Mad Men: The End of an Era
As Mad Men comes to a close, one of the greatest shows ever to grace television screens, we reflect on drama, endings, and life itself.
As one of the best series ever to be broadcast on television draws to a close, it is natural for us to get maudlin about it not being there for us each Sunday. It is natural to be a little wary about how it will all conclude too, whether it will be perfectly satisfying on every promised level (like Breaking Bad’s final episode) or empty and frustratingly mystifying and obtuse (like The Sopranos) or downright disappointing, lazy and ultimately dumb (like the first season finale of True Detective). It’s also natural for us to reflect, to think for a moment about why this show has become so important to us and why its story has endured for nearly a decade and made us expect more from period pieces on screen, from stories, and from those who put the drama into our evenings. And the truth is, however all this ends, Mad Men has given us an incredible story about ourselves. The whole tapestry of modern western culture is there in its sets, its costumes, its conflicts and its moments of hope. If the show is ultimately dark, then it is because the last sixty years of our civilization have been exactly as dark. Matt Weiner has always been willing to show us what we, as a culture, have consciously chosen to value, why we have made those choices, and what prices we ultimately pay for making them.
When the Draper family falls apart, Weiner is showing us the disintegration of the family, not a family. When Don and Betty, divorced, fight over the phone about who Sally will spend the night with after she runs away, it’s not just Sally’s life we see being broken on that screen, it’s the life of every child of divorce that has been neglected and bickered over and misunderstood. Years later, when Sally accidentally pulls the veil back on Don’s infidelity, it doesn’t just make her realize that the family mask is just one of many that we wear, it makes us realize it too.
Plenty of difficult moments have passed before our eyes in this drama — moments that make the fragility of our dreams so coldly apparent. Watching Don grapple with the ghost of Rachel Katz, nee Menken, is a reminder of just how many ghosts could’ve filled her place. We’ve watched dozens of people getting fired, being humiliated, getting dumped, stabbed in the back, abandoned, neglected, unappreciated. When it’s happened to characters we’ve hated, it’s felt like triumph. When it’s happened to characters we’ve loved, it’s felt like treason. Mad Men has captivated us without a two-twists-a-week formula. It hasn’t been like watching fireworks. It has been like a chandelier on a dimmer switch that gets turned down so smoothly and slowly that we don’t realize we are suddenly sitting in darkness. There are moments when the glass catches a shimmer, but the overall effect is the swelling of shadow.
Mad Men has really always been about the dawn of the modern lie. Sterling Cooper is the perpetrator of the biggest lie ever told: that happiness can be bought as long as one pays attention to all the right commercials. We love this lie so much that we don’t even mind when Weiner reminds us that we’re still falling for it almost sixty years later — falling for it so hard that we are scared to live without it now that we’ve based our whole existence on image and consumption. And Don Draper is the perfect man to concoct this lie, because his whole life is a lie. Even his assumed first name (as a verb) means, “put on.” When a photographer tells him, “Just be yourself,” he’s befuddled, because he has to think about what ‘himself’ even means. When he takes his kids trick-or-treating and his neighbour admires their costumes and asks Don, “who are you supposed to be?” he can’t answer, because he’s as wrapped up (or ‘draped,’ if you will) in maintaining an image of himself as we are in waiting to be told what we need and what we can become.
Right from the start, Sterling Cooper has been about telling women what they can become, not only in the ads, but also in the office and the home. Particularly in the early seasons, we see a naked portrayal of the misogyny our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers lived through in the workplaces and households of the fifties and sixties. Amazingly, these reminders have not made us think, “We’ve come so far,” any more than they have made us think, “It’s just as bad for women today, in many ways.” Mad Men’s women have shown us that both sentiments are true, always, as the nature of our chauvinism has always dictated it must be. As the story moves into the seventies, we see Peggy and Joan on opposite sides of the trap their gender has set for them. But watching the show as a man, the story does offer hope.
Mad Men has the power to make husbands want to treat wives better — no married man can seriously watch this series without recognizing some sliver of the same patriarchal doom in his own house. Watching these fictional men regard these fictional women is a calculated lesson in why our wives deserve to be treated better, like the caring, giving, tender beings that they are. In the earlier seasons, watching the younger, married Joan Hathaway at the mercy of her husband’s flighty career path was not just a reminder of how things once were, it was also a reminder of the cage that most cultures have raised their girls in for far too long. Seeing Joan and Peggy slash at each other’s feelings in an elevator over which side of the trap they’ve been placed on is heartbreaking, but it also feels more genuine than it would’ve if they’d banded together to exact revenge on their sophomoric audience at McCann. Joan and Peggy are now the power duo that Don and Roger were at the start of the series, with all the flaws (and claws) included.
Watching Peggy Olson slug her way through seven seasons and a wall of testosterone with fists clutching lipsticks, nylons, and vibrators has been like discovering a long-forgotten comic book super hero. Elisabeth Moss has given this epic character two sides in her performance right from the first episode: there’s the Peggy everyone sees, the pleasant, positive, confident climber, and the Peggy only we see, the crestfallen, cheated, fragile, lonely career woman. These sides have made for years of great dramatic irony nearly every moment Moss is on screen. We see her, and we see her goals, the joy they bring her, and the pain created by everything that stands in her way. Even in the wake of a Galliano-soaked promise to weekend in Paris, Peggy is hungover at her desk and beating herself up for being so hopeful and impulsive. Moss gets both sides of the mood swing on camera without having to say a word.
In the fifties, married women seeking psychological aid had doctors who reported only to their husbands about their ‘conditions,’ leaving the women in the dark about diagnoses they weren’t deemed capable of handling or comprehending on their own. Mad Men has shown us these frank inequities like communities shunning the divorcee, regardless of her reasons for leaving her husband. It has shown us the harassment that any attractive woman was/is subject to merely for being seen in public. It showed us how objectification creates the ultimate trap: remember when that pornographic cartoon of Joan and Layne Price was posted on an office window? When Peggy fires the artist responsible, Joan is angered, because the dismissal makes her look feeble, and makes Peggy look cold-hearted and humourless, adding two notches to the loss column for Team Estrogen at Sterling Copper Draper Pryce. Seasons later, this team is poised on the edge of seeming revolutionary, yet their ways of existing within the patriarchy are still at odds. Maybe we need to look decades into the past to really feel the plight that our mothers and grandmothers endured, and to understand that things aren’t changing fast enough in this regard. Mad Men has always served as our telescope into this understanding, whether we were watching a girl apologize profusely for not properly covering up her bosses’ blunders, or watching a woman on a lonely bus ride home from an abortion.
Mad Men is also the story of the start of us faking everything all the time. The characters pitch ads that say what their manufacturers want to believe about their products, not ones that say what they actually do. The romances of Mad Men are never truly romantic — they’re mostly just smokescreens, ways to keep up outward appearances. Marriages are primarily disguises the characters wear to distract the eye from impulsive desire, homosexuality, business affiliation, and the past. As Pete Campbell accurately states, reflecting on the stakes of pair-bonding within the framework of Mad Men, “marriage is a racket.” Faye Miller, the research psychologist, even pretends to be married, wearing a ring as a stop sign to keep men in offices from wasting her working hours. Happiness is not something people in this series want — except maybe for Roger — because it will make them feel good. They want happiness because it will make them appear happy to the rest of the world, and that is the best way to look if you want to market and hire and buy and sell and screw as effectively as possible. Mad Men shows when we really started thinking this way on a large scale, and when we began teaching our children that the optics mean more to us than the truth. Betty doesn’t get mad at ten-year-old Sally because she touches herself while watching a handsome man on TV at a sleepover, she gets mad because her friend’s mother sees her masturbating, and brings her home in the middle of the night, and probably tells the rest of the PTA. Sally isn’t told that what she was doing is normal in private, but problematic in public. Instead she is sent to a psychiatrist, and her father doesn’t want anyone to know. It’s all about the optics, and no matter the stakes, you better look normal. If you don’t, you’ll be booted out of the dream, and how will you survive there when the dream is all you’ve ever cared about or paid attention to?
“People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,” says Don’s neighbour, the doctor, before Don’s begun an affair with his wife, when they’re just two guys talking about their jobs. What’s more soothing, really, than a lie? Peggy plays the game of optics over truth when she disguises her own pregnancy from herself — and thereby everyone else — and then chooses to climb the corporate ladder instead of raising her baby. Denial is what allows her to prosper, just like denial keeps Pete Campbell from seeing himself as the privileged, talentless sellout he really is. Denial keeps Sal Romano’s marriage together, keeps Roger Sterling from feeling old, keeps Don Draper, well, Don Draper and not Dick Whitman. Even when we see Roger hire Don in a season four flashback, he does it out of denial that he was too drunk to remember giving him a job the last time they spoke. Tell yourself something enough times, and it starts to seem true. The dawn of mass advertising was the genesis of this tenet taking hold in our culture, the moment when we began to value image over reality by a larger margin than ever before. This is Mad Men’s real story, not the tale of a man with a broken heart and a broken dream that — for a time — comes true. It is the tale of our appetite. It is a true story about the hungers that we have been told to feel, and all that we have lost in trying to feed them.
And to wash that meal down? Liquid denial. Alcohol has fuelled every memorable scene in this series from start to finish. Seeing people drinking when watching Mad Men is as commonplace as seeing bare feet when watching The Flintstones. I’ll bet no major member of this cast got a job without having to play a scene drunk in audition. We’ve seen grown men piss themselves, water coolers full of creme de menthe, partnerships forged behind country club bars while fashioning old fashioneds without access to bourbon (rye must do). We’ve seen a divorced couple lulled back into each others’ arms (and their first hook up as dual cheaters — sizzle!) after sharing a smuggled mickey of CC at their son’s summer camp. We’ve seen Roger Sterling unable to consume a business lunch because he’s already too full from eating olives. We’ve seen hangover after hangover. On Mad Men, the word morning means the same thing as the word hangover. Now that it’s over, where are the Foley experts going to ply their skills of delicately nuancing the sounds of ice on glass? I guess if we miss watching people on TV getting hammered all the time, there’s always reality programming.
But if we want scripted moments of meaningful, compelling drama, we don’t need the Kardashians when we have Mad Men. The dramatic timing of this show is so subtly paced that the most meaningful moments speak effortlessly for themselves. The nearly-forty Draper trying to swim more at the pool and swim less in the Canadian Club is a valiant, but eerily doomed soul. When he has sex with his soon-to-be second wife Megan for the first time, working late together at the office, he reluctantly lets it happen because his fling with Dr. Faye feels over. It seems Faye doesn’t like being urged to help Don peel accounts from other agencies she works for in the wake of SCDP losing Lucky Strike. But when he finally gets home that night, after Megan tells him not to drink any more and to get a good rest for the hard climb ahead, there waits Faye outside apartment 3R, ready to apologize and offer him a meeting with Heinz (beans, vinegar, and sauces) as a makeup offering. As the episode ends with Faye’s head on Don’s shoulder and his eyes closing, defeated, knowing he has to break at least one heart in the very near future, it’s an unforgettable moment, one of many that coalesces consequence into a instant fraught with regret and possibility. In other words, it’s the drama of genius.
There’s still much to be made of how this all ends, but Mad Men has already given us so many good endings. If the whole thing had ended after six seasons, Don showing his kids a revealing slice of his past, Sally looking at him, disgusted into loving him again, it would have made a fitting, thought-provoking ending. If the whole thing had ended after five seasons, Don in a bar, old fashioned in hand, about to answer the question, “are you alone?” as Nancy Sinatra tells us we only live twice, it would’ve solidified the character of Don Draper as mysterious, unpredictable, dark, hard and red-blooded forever. Or if that isn’t dark enough for us, we could hypothetically end Mad Men after four water-tight seasons, Betty handing the keys to the Draper home back to Don in a sealed deal of broken hearts, dreams, and promises.
My Mother watched the whole series on Netflix to the point of the seventh-season hiatus and thought that it was over, that Bert Cooper was dancing in his sock feet, waving goodbye to us all for good. She didn’t even know that the season was actually only half over. She was completely satisfied with an ending where Roger makes the partners into millionaires and rescues Don and his impetuousness from Jim Cutler. That’s how good Weiner is at endings — even when they’re not endings, they work. Characters die, or leave, or, even more interestingly, we watch a part of them die, like when Don tells Hershey that no one should ever tell any little boy how good a chocolate bar tastes. We see him bidding goodbye to the public perception of who he is by revealing the sad secrets of his past, and more importantly, we see him rejecting the idea that people need to be told how good things are instead of just finding out for themselves. Most writers would consider it death to have their main characters — even momentarily — abandon their solidly established modi operandi, but Weiner understands that deconstruction is the dirge of depth. He’s earned the right to end this thing any way he sees fit because of all the great endings we’ve already been shown. Any of these endings would have been — and were — satisfying in their own ways, so there’s no reason to think that we’ll feel any differently when it’s really and truly over.