On its surface, Mad Men is a show about terrible people getting away with whatever they like in a time of white privilege, sexism, and cigarettes. Good thing it’s SO MUCH MORE than that.
What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me. To sell Nylons.
Mad Men is a hard show to categorize. On one end of the spectrum it’s a snappy period piece, fetishizing 1960s-era set dressing and costumes, following the travails of a New York ad agency built to shape and cater to a new generation of American consumers. Lucky Strike, Kodak, burgeoning airlines, and more get pitched marketing ideas by the show’s protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and we feel intellectually stimulated and creatively inspired. It’s predominately a workplace series, placing a premium on the slowly-evolving relationships of these coworkers, their various romantic entanglements, and drive to stay relevant in a rapidly shifting (and cutthroat) industry.
On the other end, it’s eager to criticize the cultural norms of the time in which it’s set, and the people complicit to them. Mad Men is a show about identity. For starters, Don Draper’s real name is not Don Draper. Brought up in a whorehouse, he’s been running from his past his entire life, and assumed the name of a friend who was killed right next to him during the Korean war. Don is a liar, a serial adulterer, mediocre father, and alcoholic, but the other characters accept/tolerate him because he’s a creative genius, capable of coming up with Big Ideas seemingly on the fly. Many episodes in the first few seasons feature the “Draper Moment,” where he gives his thousand-yard stare, improvises a sales pitch, and wins the hearts and minds of the executives from Campbell’s or Playtex or Western Union or what have you. But being exceptionally good at his job, in the long term, does not make him a hero in the eyes of the show, created and predominately written by Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos). Every season, we see Don at a new low, succumbing to his basest impulses. For a while he can lie and manipulate his way out of consequences, but it can’t last forever…and doesn’t.
It’s a methodical series, moving at a sometimes glacial pace that characterizes the term “slow burn.” Episodes build up their disparate threads over time, and it’s often only at the conclusion of a season that the themes and intent come into focus. It’s often difficult and uncomfortable, because while the accoutrements of this era are distractingly pretty to look at, the behavior of the characters is all too recognizable. Like Breaking Bad, the show doesn’t care whether or not we root for the main character. It just wants us to understand him.
It is capable of having fun, however. The Season 3 finale “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” is a brilliant caper, almost transported in from a different, lighter show, and throughout the series the strong character work and clever dialogue is routinely good for a few chuckles each hour: the creative staff gets into drugs; a lawn mower is driven around the office to morbidly hilarious effect; Roger Sterling (John Slattery) spins enough witty bon mots to fill a book (and, in fact, he eventually does). The on-the-ground inner workings of an ad agency, using recognizable brands in a different era, is a never-ending wellspring of material — especially when the team burns the midnight oil to win an account we know from history will be a failure.
The show is unafraid to experiment with style and structure; dream sequences abound, and many episodes contain a distinctly lyrical, heavily symbolic quality, picked up from Weiner’s time on Sopranos, but it only rarely feels heavy-handed. This is a series with meanings hidden behind meanings, with not a scene or moment wasted. It’s fun (but occasionally frustrating) to try to catch and interpret all of the references and music cues, and figure out how they fit into the mosaic.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Hamm plays all the layers of Don Draper with weary cool; Elisabeth Moss is one of the real standouts as secretary-turned-copy writer Peggy Olsen, and her scenes with Hamm crackle with a life that other subplots sometimes have to fabricate. The Season 4 episode “The Suitcase,” which amounts to a bottle episode starring just Don and Peggy, is considered by some to be the series’ finest hour — a microcosm of the show’s worldview about creativity, power, gender relations, and finding fulfillment.
The rest of the ensemble has their moments, too: Vincent Kartheiser as the (occasionally sympathetic) striver Pete Campbell; Christina Hendricks as Joan, who could be just office eye candy but has a deeper characterization than many of the men; Kiernan Shipka as Don’s daughter Sally, and one of the best child actors on TV. Even the oft-maligned January Jones has the perfect role for her — ahem — limited range in Betty Draper, Don’s icy, emotionally stunted wife. Sometimes the show doesn’t quite know what to do with her, and Betty gets a lot of criticism for simply being an obstacle to Don’s hedonism, but that’s more reflective of the show’s male, anti-hero-worshipping audience than it is of her. Conversely, Roger Sterling, Pete, and the other managers garner applause for antics that would lead to lawsuits in the 21st century, but — as the show constantly reminds us — it was a different time.
Some people are constantly looking backward to “the good old days,” a nostalgically hazy period where everything was supposedly fine and people were just “better,” more moral. Mad Men blows up that fallacy. The world wasn’t better as you think you remember it from your childhood; there was still war, injustice, and familial decay. The times change, the technologies and clothing change, but people are still people. Some look forward, some do whatever it takes to keep from falling behind, and all are broken in different ways. It’s interesting that faith has no place in the story, save a few minor characters; it mirrors the self-centered, increasingly isolated culture we know too well today. Mad Men is a tough series that likes to make you feel guilty for enjoying it; it could have been set at any point in history, even 2013, and its themes would still ring true — about the different personas we take on to please others or ourselves, and how easily we can be manipulated by a smiling ad man in a suit.